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Ideas Made to Matter

Behavioral Science

A checklist for effective COVID-19 public health messaging

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Good public health messages play an important role in persuading people to do things that are burdensome but beneficial — like hand-washing and following social distancing guidelines to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Using insights from behavioral science, MIT Sloan professor David Rand and research scientist Erez Yoeli created a checklist for effective messaging based on the role of reputation and social enforcement. Research suggests that people are motivated to impress their peers and comply with peer pressure, so messages are most effective if they trigger those social concerns. These insights can help combat COVID-19, and are also relevant for other public goods problems, like asking people to fly less or recycle more.

Here are three ways to create messages people will follow:

Communicate the benefit to the community.

Effective messages convey that the desired behavior isn’t just an individual choice, but is also important for the public good, according to Rand and Yoeli. Framing decisions as public goods creates a feeling of societal obligation, activating people’s desire to be seen as good members of the community.

Examples of existing public frames include the hashtags #flattenthecurve and #stayhomesavelives, which the researchers said are “accurate, succinct, and widely recognized ways of pointing out the benefit to the community.” Other effective messages should be as personal and specific to the person’s community as possible, including invoking the risk COVID-19 poses to specific people in the community like health workers or people who are especially at risk.

Make the ask unambiguous, categorical, and concise.

It is important for messaging to make it clear if someone has complied, in order to eliminate plausible deniability. For example, a kitchen sign that says “clean up after yourself” is ambiguous — people have different ideas about what that means. A better sign would say “don’t leave dirty dishes in the sink.”

Similarly, social distancing messages aren’t worthwhile if it isn’t clear when people are permitted to leave their homes. Confusion creates room for people to go out more than they should, and makes it hard to agree that the rule has been broken. A clearer message like “stay home except going to work, the pharmacy, and the store” makes it easier for concerns about peer pressure to kick in and do their job.

If messages and requests are too long or complicated, it is easy to comply with just part of the request. Keep asks short to ensure people feel that they can reasonably comply with the entire request, and can’t use the excuse that they did part of what was requested, or that the request was too hard.

Generate the impression that other people expect compliance.

Rand and Yoeli said messages should make it seem likely that most people will comply.  People are more likely to follow messages when they believe that other people are complying – and thus that peer pressure will be strong. 

A classic example comes from a study on towel reuse in hotels. Instead of leaving signs in hotel rooms asking people to reuse their towels, more persuasive messages use descriptive norms (“75% of guests reuse their towel”) or injunctive norms (“75% of guests think reusing your towel is the right thing to do”). In the context of COVID-19, advocates can similarly say that the vast majority of people are complying with social distancing measures. It also helps to point to complying people who are admired, like celebrities and athletes, or people who have authority, like doctors and officials. 

Finally, the best advocates don’t just state the importance of complying, but make it clear they are taking the actions themselves, the researchers said. Mayors, governors, and presidents, especially, should take heed and lead by example, they said.

Read the checklist 

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