Limiting the spread of COVID-19: lessons from behavioural science

Five behaviour change principles to guide COVID-19 messaging, and increase recommended behaviours to slow transmission.

By Dr Elizabeth Holmes-Truscott

News about COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is all around us at the moment. In our diabetes community, there is heightened concern, as we are all well aware that people affected by diabetes, other chronic conditions and frailty, are at all higher risk if they get COVID-19. In times of crisis, we need to look to the experts for advice. Medical and epidemiology experts are important sources of information – but behavioural science experts also have important insights to share.

We all have a role to play in reducing the impact of COVID-19. Changes to our everyday behaviour, like washing our hands and ‘social distancing’, can help to delay its spread and protect those who are most vulnerable. However, changing our behaviour and inspiring change in others can be very difficult. We must look to behavioural science to guide evidence-based strategies to increase public motivation, capability and opportunity to perform recommended behaviours. In a series of open access commentaries, Professor Susan Michie (UCL Centre for Behaviour Change) and colleagues summarise such evidence and strategies (1,2,3).

Michie and colleagues describe five behaviour change principles that may help to encourage public behaviour change.

  1. Create a mental model: We’re more likely to make change when we understand the ‘why’, ‘what’, and ‘how’. A ‘mental model’ is a simple diagram showing how the virus spreads and when certain behaviours, like washing your hands, are useful to slow / stop the spread. It may be useful to share this diagram with others when discussing the behaviours needed to protect yourself and others.
  2. Create social norms: We’re more likely to change our behaviour if it is seen as ‘normal’. What others think of us matters. We can all play our part by modelling the recommended behaviours and providing feedback to others, remembering to be kind and supportive.
  3. Create the right level and type of emotion: We’re more likely to change our behaviour if we perceive a health threat – but only if we feel we have the capability and opportunity to do so. Emotion is a strong driver of behaviour, for better or worse. Emotional messaging needs to be balanced with a clear call to action.
  4. Replace one behaviour with another: We’re more likely to make change when we know what other behaviour we can/should do instead. For example, Michie advises to keep your hands below shoulders to help avoid touching your face.
  5. Make the behaviour easy: The easier it is to adopt a behaviour the more likely it is people will do it. Consider how the recommended behaviours can become part of your usual routine.

For more information on what you need to know about COVID-19, including what you can do to slow / stop the spread of the virus, visit the Australian Government Department of Health website.

Image credit: Australian Government Department of Health

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