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To help more Americans adopt social distancing, change the message

To help more Americans adopt social distancing, change the message
© getty: People visit Clearwater Beach after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis opened beaches on May 4, 2020

A recent survey says many U.S. states are doing a poor job of social distancing. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Ohio and Arkansas and Mississippi each get an “F” in the report, while many other states rated a “D.” While some may quibble with these scores, resistance to social distancing clearly goes beyond visible protests. Perhaps more significantly, millions of individual Americans are not following the distancing guidelines designed to contain the coronavirus. Either they do not get the message, are becoming less vigilant, or they reject the guidance outright.

Yet, social distancing practices remain critical now, as many states take steps to begin reopening their economies, creating more opportunities for contact. Without distancing practices, health experts say, we risk a second major wave of infections.

For some who are resisting current recommendations, changing their response may be as simple as changing the words our policymakers and leaders use.

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Decades of behavioral science research show that when people feel their freedom is being threatened, they become highly motivated to protect it or get it back. They may react to a rule or a mandate by arguing, derogating its usefulness or even defying it entirely and doing the exact opposite. We’ve already seen several examples of this backlash, including pastors refusing to suspend services, crowded beaches during spring break and physical attacks on those who ask people to practice social distancing.

Our research shows this type of backlash to restriction was part of American society long before the COVID-19 pandemic and extends to almost all parts of our lives. When an item such as toilet paper isn’t in stock at the grocery store, it becomes more desirable. When an expert recommends you follow a particular course of action, the alternative seems oddly attractive.

 In one experiment, we asked people to select a granola bar among a handful of choices. When they were told to avoid one specific brand, they flouted these instructions. Once they were advised they shouldn’t choose that brand, they chose it at almost double the rate.

This basic response is stronger for some Americans than for others. About a third of the population reacts to restrictions quite strongly and negatively, with young people more likely to show this behavior than older folks, and males more likely than females to respond in this way.

A third of America not following critical COVID-19 recommendations would be a major humanitarian disaster. Fortunately, our research has shown that a relatively small intervention can go a long way towards increasing compliance with recommendations that restrict individual freedoms.

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At the moment, many COVID-19 restrictions are framed as “you must engage in social distancing,” “you must wash your hands frequently and thoroughly,” and “stay home if you feel sick.” If instead, we can frame the behaviors as a choice the individual will want to make, many likely will stop lashing out and more may start to comply.

We have seen this play out often in experiments. In one study, we experimented with ways to prevent students from being tardy to class. When the professor cautioned students against missing class and highlighted that there would be negative grade consequences, tardiness actually increased.

Then we reframed the issue as one in which students had a choice. The students generated the pros and cons of missing class. In that group, tardiness dropped by 40 percent.

In the current COVID-19 context, we might institute a pledge that asks, “What are you doing to protect your loved ones?” with a box they can check beside every voluntary step they will take, such as social distancing or hand washing. Such an approach is much less likely to trigger a backlash response, even from those of us who feel the instinct to fight any restriction on our freedom aggressively.

Some organizations and businesses are already adopting this kind of messaging — language that emphasizes individual agency. For instance, at the U.S. Air Force’s base in Qatar, they have created clever signage that drives home the difference each person can make, with wording such as “Keep your distance, keep ‘em covered, keep it open — It’s on you.” In other words, if you’d like to keep these amenities open, you might want to choose to engage in the recommended behaviors.

Policymakers are already telling Americans how they can help fight the pandemic. With a small shift in how these recommendations are framed, behavioral science suggests that America can and will get through this crisis while minimizing negative consequences.

Gavan J. Fitzsimons is the Edward S and Rose K Professor of Marketing and Psychology at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. His research focuses on resistance to persuasive appeals and other forms of behavioral backlash.