The past year has been a busy one for behavioural scientists. At the core of a successful response to COVID-19 lies a behaviour change problem: how do you convince a nation to change their behaviour for the common good?
Professor Jim McManus, chair of the Behavioural Science and Public Health Network (BSPHN), articulated this challenge in his opening remarks of the 2021 BSPHN Conference: “No amount of non-pharmaceutical interventions will get us out of COVID without winning the hearts and minds of citizens”.
The BSPHN is a UK-based network of behavioural science professionals working in a variety of public health settings. Many of its members have found themselves thrust to the frontline of the COVID-19 response, serving as consultants and collaborators to ‘translate’ behavioural science to local, national and international authorities desperately in need of our expertise.
Against this backdrop, it was no surprise that the theme for the 2021 Behavioural science and Public Health Network (BSPHN) Annual Conference was ‘Instigating change for public health during COVID-19’.
With my background in both epistemology and discourse analysis, I was especially excited by the research and reflections on establishing trust and credibility in communications. Three take-aways stood out around this theme:
1.Clarity breeds trust
While many of us hold the instinct that we need to use technical language to win the trust of a listener, behavioural science has found that the opposite is true. Research presented by Prof. Angel Chater on the features of effective public health messaging suggests that confusing and jargon-filled messages alienate non-expert audiences. Instead, messages communicated in plain language are much more likely to win trust. Danielle Watson, qualitative evaluation lead for Southampton University’s Saliva Testing Programme, offered a case-study in support of this finding: the clearer the messaging about impact, the more motivated students became to protect each other through via regular testing.
Another often overlooked issue raised by Prof. Chater is the clarity of the behavioural action embedded within messages. For instance, a message like ‘stay alert’ is ambiguous about the behaviours it asks of the public. As a result, it is likely to be less effective than messages that incorporate direct commands, such as ‘wear face coverings in public’. Once again, there were many examples of this principle across the conference. Research presented by consultants working with seven Local Authorities in the North East of England, for example, found that confusion about the behaviours being asked of the public was amongst the top drivers of non-adherence to COVID-19 guidelines.
It is evident that clarity is more than a hygiene factor: it should be an essential ingredient in an effective communication strategy.
2. Admit errors
Another counterintuitive but essential lesson in achieving credibility is to embrace humility. We are often reluctant to admit our mistakes, but social psychologists have shown that trust and likeability can increase when otherwise competent people make the odd mistake – a phenomenon termed the Pratfall effect.
In the ever-changing COVID-19 landscape, willingness to admit to changes in direction is more important than ever. Greg Fell, Director of Public Health Sheffield, reflected on the difficulty of taking on this lesson, acknowledging that there had been over 200 changes in guidance since the pandemic began. What the Pratfall effect teaches us, however, is that acknowledging these U-turns and areas of uncertainty, rather than sweeping them under the rug, is a necessary component of maintaining trust and credibility.
A case study of adherence to COVID-19 preventative behaviours in Sheffield, presented by Prof. Maddy Arden, reiterated this message: unexplained flip-flopping on restrictions reduced adherence in Sheffield and increased scepticism of the restrictions’ effectiveness. Prof. Arden’s take-way couldn’t be clearer: “it is not just important to tell people what the guidance is, but why the guidance has changed”.
3. Handle misinformation with care and timeliness
The COVID-19 crisis has also brought into sharp relief the challenge of misinformation. A lesson from cognitive psychology to consider here is that people unconsciously ascribe higher credibility to ideas that they encounter regularly. This psychological bias introduces a hidden danger about repeating false information, even if only to correct it: repetition can increase acceptance of this information and unwittingly spread it new audiences. Greg Fell remarked that this has been a valuable learning in their approach to making the truth stick and myths fade – his team focus on repeating and making accessible true information, rather than fire-fighting misinformation with myth-busting campaigns.
Lastly, one of the most powerful strategies in countering the spread of misinformation is pre-empting it. A review of public health messages lead by the BPS Covid-19 Behavioural Science and Disease Prevention Taskforce – represented at the conference by Profs. Susan Michie and Angel Chater – emphasised the importance of timeliness in cementing trust: being the first to provide information can help avoid rumours and speculations.
All in all, the 2021 BSPHN conference was an inspiring few days for our behavioural science team, offering countless takeaways to apply to our work in healthcare market research. For more information about our behavioural science expertise and how it can help you, get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Emma Neville