Research Press Release

Social science: Social science insights for managing the COVID-19 pandemic response

Nature Human Behaviour

May 1, 2020

Urgent action is needed to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which can be supported by the social and behavioural sciences, argue 43 researchers in a Perspective in Nature Human Behaviour this week. The authors provide recommendations for individuals and policymakers on effective responses to the pandemic, based on existing research, and highlight key research gaps that need to be filled in the coming weeks and months.

Since the current COVID-19 crisis requires large-scale behaviour changes and places significant psychological burdens on individuals, insights from social and behavioural sciences can be used to help align human behaviour with the recommendations of epidemiologists and public health experts

Jay Van Bavel, Robb Willer and colleagues discuss topics that are relevant to numerous stages of the current pandemic to help policymakers, leaders and the public better understand how to manage threats, navigate different social and cultural contexts, improve science communication, align individual and collective interests, employ effective leadership, and provide social and emotional support.

The authors suggest that addressing the public in collective terms and by urging ‘us’ to act for the common good may help to promote cooperation across individuals and communities and combat discrimination. They note that encouraging positive behaviour is more effective when coupled with the expectation of social approval and that, given the importance of slowing infection, making individuals aware that they too benefit from others’ access to preventative measures may help. Leaders and members of the media should highlight bipartisan support for COVID-related measures, when it exists.

The authors emphasize the need for more targeted public health information within marginalized communities and for partnerships between public health authorities and trusted organizations within these communities. They argue that persuasive public health messaging underscores the benefits to the recipient, focuses on protecting others, aligns with the recipient’s moral values, appeals to social consensus and highlights the approval of the social group.

Preparing the public for misinformation and ensuring that they have accurate information, as well as providing counterarguments against false information and conspiracies, may help inoculate people against fake news, the authors suggest. They also argue that the term ‘physical distancing’ is preferable to ‘social distancing’, because it indicates that a social connection is possible even when people are physically separated.


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