Review so far: How do we improve behavioural compliance?
We’ve had several weeks of lockdown in the UK in an effort to reduce the rapid spread of COVID-19. How have we performed and how can we Improve?
One of the most powerful impacts on behaviour is role-modelling. We imitate and try to emulate those in authority and those we respect. However, we are also quick to spot hypocrisies where our leaders do not follow their own advice. Whilst we might assume ‘do as I say, not what I do’ applies primarily to children, it is actually entirely applicable to adults. There have been several examples of leaders (across the UK) who have undermined efforts to #Stayhome by not heeding the advice themselves. This includes the Scottish Chief Medical Officer visiting her second home, and UK minister Robert Jenrick unnecessarily visiting his parents. There can be no excuses, but these actions set a precedent for anyone looking to break the rules ‘with an excuse.’
Lesson 1: Leaders must consistently behave as role models and demonstrate behaviour that they wish the population to follow.
This is particularly true where the behavioural instruction is disagreeable – such as staying indoors on a sunny day. Failure to act as a role model leads to a ‘one rule for them and another for us’ narrative which in turn undermines trust in authority and reduced compliance.
We can also observe this effect in behaviour related to social distancing. There were clear examples of Boris Johnson and other MPs crowding together, even after the 2m distancing guidelines had been published. Consistently across the world, leaders appear not to appreciate how much 2m is. In general, humans tend to have an ‘optimistic bias’, where we consider ourselves less likely to experience a negative event than other people. This view is enhanced by the degree of perceived control we have over a situation. For example, those in positions of authority are more likely to overestimate their abilities, plans and likelihood of future success. As such, those who pass legislation on coronavirus may consider themselves immune to its contraction. However, this is clearly not the case, and is a harmful perception for both policy makers and the constituents they are charged to protect. Crucially, we will not distance ourselves if we don’t see our role-models distancing. Given Boris’ subsequent contraction of COVID-19 let’s hope others go on to practice what they preach.
Different segments of the population are responding to the Government’s messages. For example, the privileged section of the population (perhaps with second homes, certainly with disposable income) do not believe the rules are personally applicable and so flout them. Much like they have treated our society for the last two or three decades. At the other extreme, there are those experiencing poverty, possibly living in crowded accommodation with little space (indoors or out) to express autonomy during lockdown. This second group may be experiencing a sense of ‘futurelessness’ (see separate post on this), whereby a perceived lack of control over the future drives risky behaviour. In this case, there is no point trying to avoid COVID-19. Both these groups represent key sections of the population not complying with Government advice.
Lesson 2: Target messages better. Employ the right messenger and target personal motivations and values. And use segment channels (e.g. Instagram, Tik-Toc, Snapchat). E.g. bigger picture framing for privileged, individual risk framing to futureless.
Much has been said about the success of Germany’s mass testing to control the virus. They in turn took the lead from South Korea. We don’t have to become a police state – indeed South Korea is a flourishing democracy. It’s just that South Koreans trust their Government more and are willing to comply with difficult regulations in times of challenge. They have a greater sense of the bigger picture. They also used a mandatory smartphone app to monitor movement and track cases. This was regulated by the Government, and whilst certainly more authoritarian than here in the UK, demonstrated the significance, in times of challenge, of having a country-wide ability to manage their country and population. South Korea (and now Germany) have been much more successful at restricting the contagion and in working towards a tailored lifting of lockdown measures.
Lesson 3: Use all the tools available to provide a coherent approach – including testing, regulation, monitoring, and behavioural interventions.
What this shows is that we need a combination of clear regulation as well as targeted messaging and consistent leadership. In the UK, the efforts to reduce Easter-weekend travel and mass gatherings have been relatively successful. This in part results from a combination of clear messaging (and probably helped by a key role model – Boris – becoming ill himself), as well as high-profile regulations (plenty of media coverage of police giving out fines and sending people home). As the lockdown is confirmed for a further period it is becoming more important to make full use of all the tools collectively.
Likewise, if the UK attempts to monitor and control COVID-19 using a smartphone App, then for it to be successful it needs to be Government regulated and mandatory (cf South Korea). The Welsh Government have made a positive step in promoting the use of the COVID-19 tracker app across its population, but again, a combination of regulation and also clear and consistent leadership will be needed to ensure success.
Lesson 4: We need to build a more collective and equal UK society who sees a greater priority in the needs of the many, and not just in the needs of the individual.
So far, the lockdown has demonstrated some heartening success – the curve is flattening and new hospital admissions are no longer rising. However, we are by no means out of the woods and the next few months will require significant behavioural cooperation from the population. Thus far, the environment of lockdown has highlighted some pervasive and damaging inequalities in our society. On the one hand, we can observe how excessive perceptions of power instil leaders, and others in privileged positions, with a very false perception of immunity. On the other, those who lack control are unwilling to take action toward a future they believe is futile. Both extremes lead to the flaunting of government guidelines. The Covid-19 outbreak has provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to understand this psychologically, and make positive changes to our society. This will not only help face challenges today, but also make for a more resilient population response in future. So let’s hope the lessons above are learnt, and reflected in upcoming future approaches and leadership behaviours.