Changing behaviours to save lives

14th May 2020

How behavioural science is helping to stop the spread of coronavirus.

As the real-life impacts of the global Covid-19 pandemic unfold before our eyes, I have been reflecting on the importance of change coaches and communications specialists. It is in times of unexpected chaos that these skills come into their own, and we have seen governments and organisations adopting a range of techniques to inform, advise and help influence individual and collective behaviour.

This article reflects on some of the ways the UK and other governments have communicated to the public during the crisis, through the lenses of nudge theory and behavioural science.

What is nudge theory?

One way to describe nudge theory is as a series of subtle shifts that ‘…make it easier for (people) to make a certain decision’ (Chu 2017).

Nudge theory has been adopted by governments, local authorities, businesses and charities around the world, with the UK government a leading proponent of the theory.

Some key behavioural changes that have been strongly advised include more frequent hand washing, refraining from touching the face, social distancing and self-isolation. However, while asking the public to wash their hands more frequently is one challenge (see our article coming soon on how different countries are utilising innovative methods to encourage handwashing!), asking the public to stop seeing loved ones during a time when thousands are grieving is another challenge entirely.

The request for social distancing is counterintuitive to our human desire for connection, indicated by the R (Relatedness) in David Rocks’ SCARF model, which describes how we crave togetherness and social connection as a species. There is a need, then, for some carefully planned communications to ensure we, as a nation and as a world, continue to adhere to governments’ requests.

What are the barriers to change?

As change practitioners, we understand the importance of identifying why people might not want to adopt a new way of working. It is important to identify what these barriers to change are, and understand whether these are external (e.g. there isn’t any water available to wash my hands), or internal (e.g. I don’t have time to wash my hands), if we are to address them effectively.

While external barriers to change can usually be easy to identify, internal barriers are rather more challenging. While many of the decisions made from internal barriers can look illogical or irrational to an external observer, they can very often be traced to a cognitive bias. If we are aware of these biases, we can utilise these to improve the chances of changing individual or collective behaviour. We must be careful, however, not to overrepresent the severity of outcomes and cause hysteria, or to underrepresent and create indifference. This is the fine line governments around the world have been treading since the outbreak.

What is cognitive bias?

Conserving energy has been essential for humans’ survival (University of British Colombia, 2018).  In other words, humans are wired to be lazy. Our brains adopt a set of simple strategies, which include developing cognitive biases, that allow people to solve problems and make judgements quickly and efficiently. This is known as ‘heuristics’.

There are over 150 cognitive biases which can be utilised in our business change and communications strategies to increase the chances of adopting different behaviours. Below I have addressed a selection of cognitive biases which have been used (intentionally or unintentionally) by UK government representatives addressing Covid-19 over the last few weeks. The biases I focus on are Priming, Storytelling, Fluency Shortcut, Framing, Autonomy, Social Proof and Rewards biases (McDonald, C 2019), all of which are examples of nudge theory in practice. Finally, I will touch upon Ironic Process Theory.

Priming: Our decisions are shaped by recollections of things just seen. An example of this can be seen with the use of images and videos of the healthcare crisis in Italy’s hospitals, followed by the statement ‘we are two weeks behind Italy’. This builds a picture in people’s minds of impending crisis in our own health service, without needing to say it explicitly.

Storytelling: We are more persuaded by and better recall those who tell stories. One week we saw a nurse making a tearful plea in her car after not finding anything left in the supermarkets following a long shift on a hospital ward. She was trying to buy supplies for her elderly parents and made an emotional appeal for people to stop stockpiling. This was arguably far more compelling than a rehearsed statement from a politician. This also highlights the importance of choosing appropriate ‘actors’ when communicating a need to change in a business setting. The most senior or authoritative voice may not always be the most influential. An example of this can be seen in Finland, whose government has designated social media influencers as key workers, so they can share communications on behalf of the government to reach a wider, more diverse audience.

Fluency Shortcut: Statements that are easier to understand are more believable. It might have been easy for the chief scientific and chief medical advisors to use medical and scientific terminology, however the audience is the general public. We can see their use of plain language in these sessions (i.e. clear, concise language appropriate to the intended audience). Plain language is recommended as one of the important principles of communication by the World Health Organisation.

Framing: We make very different decisions based on how a fact is presented. Scientific researchers estimate that the death rate is 0.5-1% of those who contract the virus. This figure would be just as accurate if it was described as ‘it is estimated that between 99-99.5% of people with the virus will survive’. The message that individuals take from each of these statements is likely to be quite different; where the former might be taken as a warning, the latter might be taken as reassurance. To further compel people to stay inside, another way to describe the fatality rates could be to apply the statistic to the population. For example, a fatality rate of 1% of the UK population equates to 600,000 people. This shows the use of statistics in influencing decision making can be a very powerful tool indeed.

Autonomy: We have a deep-seated need to control our situations. Creating a sense of ownership and the co-creation of change has been a key theme throughout the narrative from the government. The UK’s Chief Medical Officer’s explanation of the approach to contain coronavirus highlights this: We need to do three things; the first of which is obviously to try to pull the peak down. And that is the key thing that everybody can help with in terms of the social distancing. […] This is the national effort bit.’ (Bolded text my own.)

Social Proof: In the above statement, we can also see an example of appealing to the Social Proof bias: i.e. the tendency individuals have to copy the behaviours of others, particularly in unfamiliar situations. Boris Johnson has regularly thanked the ‘many people who have been adhering to government advice’, and in the Chief Medical Officer’s statement ‘there’s a lot of evidence a huge proportion of people are… (going into serious social distancing)’. These statements may, consciously or unconsciously, appeal to people’s desire to adhere to social norms and therefore make them feel more inclined to do what other people appear to be doing.

Rewards: We change our behaviour when given incentives that reinforce actions and goals. We have seen the government issue unprecedented financial support for businesses to enable them to better support their staff in staying at home. Similarly Johnson on 19 March suggested that, should we strictly adhere to the advice, we could see a turn of the tide within 12 weeks. That message of hope could act as a powerful incentive for people to adhere to government advice.

Finally, Ironic Process Theory, first theorised by Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1863 and proven by Daniel Wegner more than a century later, suggests that deliberate attempts to stop thinking about something actually makes the thoughts more likely to surface (Winerman 2011). For example, asking someone to not think of a white bear causes most of us to think about a white bear. So how might this auto-response impact the effectiveness of asking someone not to touch their face? The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) recommend providing behaviour substitutes rather than merely advising someone to not touch their face. For example, the BIT recommends advising ‘keeping hands in pockets, holding hands together, or folding arms’ instead (BIT 2020).

Only time will tell if the joint application of mathematics and statistical modelling, medicine, epidemiology and behavioural science has been enough to prevent the unnecessary spread of coronavirus. In the meantime, there is much we can learn from the different communication strategies being adopted around the world.

By Emma Barron, CMC Consultant


References and useful resources

Chu, B 2017, ‘What is ‘nudge theory’ and why should we care? Explaining Richard Thaler’s Nobel economics prize-winning concept.’, The Independent,  9 October, accessed 6 April 2020 <>

Winerman, L 2011, ‘Suppressing the white bear’, Monitor on Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 9, p.44 <>

‘How to stop touching our faces in the wake of the Coronavirus’, Behavioural Insights Team, 5 March 2020, accessed 28 March 2020 <>

McDonald, C 2019,  ‘Maximising Engagement – Behavioural Science and Nudge Theory’, Change Management Institute

University of British Colombia 2018 ‘Hardwired for laziness? Tests show the human brain must work hard to avoid sloth’, Science Daily, 18 September 2018, accessed 30 April 2020 <>