Experts offer unexpected solutions on how to increase public compliance and prevent a second wave of COVID-19
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Story

Experts offer unexpected solutions on how to increase public compliance and prevent a second wave of COVID-19

Stories/674 , Issues/Policy , Issues/Technology
Sydney NSW
21st Apr 2020
Experts offer unexpected solutions on how to increase public compliance and prevent a second wave of COVID-19
Discover what social norming and global travel have in common.

In the last month of social distancing, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has expressed frustration to the point of reprimanding the public. According to Peter Bragge, the director of BehaviourWorks Australia’s health programs, taking a more positive tone is more likely to curb public noncompliance.

“One of the really powerful things that can make people not follow instructions is to highlight the behaviour you don’t want people to do too much,” he tells The Quo.

In fact, State Governments are following suit by ramping up restrictions and giving out fines will only have a “paradoxical effect on people”. 

“It’s called socially norming, so if you call out something that a lot of people are doing that’s the wrong thing, people begin to think that is the thing that everyone’s doing.

“The natural human tendency is to actually want to be part of what everyone’s doing,” Bragge explains.

The paradox at play

By largely focusing panic buyers and those being fined for failing to adhere to social distancing rules, the media and government have been creating negative norms.

“If everyone did what they were told, there would be no one in prisons,” Bragge says.

“We know that behaviour is very complex, and there are always people who will do the ‘wrong thing’.”

For example, he acknowledges, as neuro-developmental psychologists have long asserted, that young adults in their early twenties biologically feel a sense of invulnerability, impeding their ability to accurately measure risk.

However, he believes the response lacks behavioural scientific grounding.

“It’s been a little bit counterproductive that all the people like politicians are kind of wagging their fingers at younger people,” Bragge says.

“That makes young people feel very disenfranchised.”

This effect doesn’t stop at adolescence. It is present in everyday situations such as workplaces, where direct orders to stop a behaviour can be seen as “a real threat to your autonomy” triggering a “natural human tendency” to rebel.

Although this is a subconscious effect, Bragge says it can be reversed using techniques most of us are probably already familiar with.

“Probably the single most helpful thing is to flip the negative messaging to positive messaging.”

Tried and true

Globally, governments and public services have found success in applying positive norms to different campaigns.

In 2009, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the UK tax collection agency, took a different tact to threats and increased interest rates in dealing with its longstanding issue with late taxpayers, including a letter boasting nine out of 10 people comply with their obligations on time. Together with a few other small measures, this method saw about a 29% increase to its on-time payments.

Locally, Bragge directed The Quo to look at the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) website, which consciously changed its terminology from “death toll” to “lives lost” in its Towards Zero campaign.

“The problem with talking about 'road toll' is that it implies that road trauma is an acceptable cost of having roads,” the website’s statistics page says, comparing it to the way highway fees are described.

“By reducing people’s lives to a number, it makes it easier for the community to feel distanced from the issue.

“These are not just numbers, they are people,” it adds.

This kind of success has pushed ambulances, utility companies, and healthcare professionals to use similar tactics in an effort to reinforce positive behaviour.

Even Facebook groups showcasing kindness in the midst of COVID-19, or celebrities modelling the ideal behaviour such as the Stay Home and Shelter at Home hashtags have a similar effect, Bragge says.

The behavioural scientist believes publicising this ideal behaviour will act as natural persuasion for those exposed. So although he warns of using too much social media in these times, Bragge encourages those in isolation to seek content and posts about uplifting behaviour.

How tech can help

Positive messaging is not the only seemingly counterintuitive solution at play. Although access to global travel has undoubtedly increased the spread of the novel coronavirus, Dr Krishna Udayakumar, founding director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, tells The Quo the same connectedness is also what “makes it easier for us to coordinate and prepare in other ways”.

“In many ways, the connectedness that we have around the world adds both the ability of these emerging infectious diseases to take hold much more quickly, but also gives us the promise of being able to address them more effectively.”

Udayakumar considers technology’s role in a pandemic integral to five areas: data and population surveillance, testing, communications, therapeutics and vaccine development, and the supply chain.

As different countries come up against COVID-19, they are each focusing on a different aspect of technology’s potential roles.

“I think we still have some gaps that we have to meet in terms of best addressing the role of technology,” Udayakumar says.

“Making sure that there's a very strong grounding in ethics in everything that we're doing in the ways that we're deploying technology is important,” he adds.

Although countries such as Singapore and South Korea were able to suppress the number of cases early by ramping up its public surveillance, “it's easy to go down a slippery slope of falling into the using technology beyond what we feel comfortable with,” Udayakumar says.

Another consideration is evidence and misinformation. As the content marketplace floods with conflicted and, at times unfounded, claims, the trained physician says the challenge “to work through systematically, a better understanding of what works and what doesn't work” is important to tackle.

The last precaution Udayakumar offers is to evaluate short and long term needs, as the need for medical technology will not end with the current pandemic.

“One of the ways that we can use technology more effectively is to make sure it's helping us set up for the types of health systems that we need for the future and building some of those anchor components.” 

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