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How do you communicate with credibility? Reflecting on the 2021 BSPHN Conference


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 shift@hrwhealthcare.com.


By Emma Neville


Dana Hill
Research Manager

Dana joined HRW’s OR:BIT team following the completion of her Bachelor’s degree in Public Health, with a concentration in Healthcare Policy and Management, bringing with her a wealth of knowledge on systems of care and healthcare strategy. Dana has always had a passion for healthcare and a drive to combat the biggest challenges faced in healthcare today, drawing her to oncology research. Dana has a strong interest in developmental therapeutics and new product planning, particularly IO and cell therapies, and enjoys following advances in the field by regularly attending global oncology conferences. Dana has research experience across a variety of hematological and solid malignancies, across stakeholders and stages of the brand lifecycle.


Gemma McConnell
Research Director, OR:BIT

Gemma has a masters in Pharmacology and a PhD in the field of cancer cell signalling. She made the move away from academia in 2011, discovering that marker research was the ideal channel to continue and develop her interest in oncology. Gemma has expertise across multiple solid tumour types and haematological malignancies and is passionate about keeping informed of the rapidly evolving oncology market, regularly attending key oncology conferences. 


Jo McDonald
Global Director, OR:BIT

As the leader and founder of HRW’s oncology team, OR:BITL, Jo has a passion for all things ‘oncology’. With a degree in Business Management and Marketing, and a natural curiosity for understanding people and their decision making, market research seemed like the perfect career path to follow. Over the course of the last 20 years of her market research career, Jo has always been involved in oncology research studies, drawn by the complexity of projects and the delicate balance between science and marketing in oncology. When the opportunity arose to move client-side to GSK to help launch a new oncology asset in two new indications, Jo jumped at the chance. This experience allowed her to work closely with R&D, and the medics involved in the trials for these medications – and see how these functions work alongside commercial teams to bring an asset to market. 

In 2016 Jo joined HRW to head up and develop our oncology offering, building a team of experts and a core set of clients supporting them in the design of clinical trials; to understanding the opportunity of a new asset, through to tracking awareness, usage and behaviour once a product is in the market. Her core areas of specialism are cell therapy, NSCLC, head and neck, prostate, ovarian and breast as well as CLL and CML.


Kirsty Page
Associate Director

RHaving joined HRW in 2009, and leveraging a degree in History that leaned heavily into story driven communication, a career in market research seemed like the perfect fit for Kirsty. With the launch of OR:BIT in 2016, she was enthusiastic to join the team and take the opportunity to develop an academic interest in the complex and evolving science of the oncology space. Kirst’s particular passion lies in patient research, and having the opportunity to get close to a multitude of different patients, to learn about their experiences and hear first-hand about their challenges and hopes surrounding living with, or dying from, cancer is inspirational. Her core areas of specialism include NSCLC, myeloma, head and neck, prostate and haematological malignancies such as AML, CML and CLL.