As the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, rapidly spreads across the globe, governments are implementing strict measures to limit its devastating effects. According to the latest counts, there are more than 220,000 confirmed cases worldwide—and many more are likely going undetected. To stem the spread, nations are sealing borders, shuttering schools and businesses, and encouraging social distancing. Some countries are locking down residents in their home.
The extent of the virus’s spread will also depend on the actions of individuals, many of whom may lack any symptoms of infection—meaning a crucial factor that will determine the effectiveness of the new rules and regulations over several weeks, or even months, is the way people behave . “A lot of the challenges that we’re facing right now are behavioral challenges,” says Jon Jachimowicz, a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard Business School.
Psychologists, economists and neuroscientists around the world have been working at breakneck speeds to identify evidence-based solutions to those behavioral challenges. Some researchers have been mining the vast body of existing behavioral science literature to find useful information for policy makers and the public. Earlier this month, Pete Lunn, a behavioral economist who heads the Behavioral Research Unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Ireland, and his team conducted a rapid review of scientific papers. “When this crisis started to emerge, it became apparent to me that the literature that we had was clearly very relevant,” he says. “We ended up reviewing in excess of 120 scientific papers in about a week.”
For Lunn, the key message that emerged from the review—which was reported in a working paper last week—was about collective action. The good news is that there is evidence from previous research that many individuals will act in ways that go against their best interest for the greater good. The paper also highlights three factors that would make such altruistic behavior more likely: clear communication, feeling a sense of community and some form of punishment—social disapproval, for example—for those who break the rules. Some countries have already introduced penalties, such as fines or even jail time, to enforce lockdowns or quarantines.
Immediately after the paper was released, the team sent it to Ireland’s Department of Health. “We circulated the paper, and it was included in their communication strategy within two days,” Lunn says. Now the researchers are working in collaboration with that department to conduct behavioral studies to examine how people are responding to government messaging about the pandemic. Lunn hopes to publish the findings from that work within the next few weeks.
Other scientists are also scrambling to conduct near real-time studies as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds. Jachimowicz, for example, is part of a global team trying to identify the most effective means of encouraging individuals to act in ways that will help fight the coronavirus. The group convened last week when its leader Federico Raimondi Slepoi, head of R², the behavioral policy unit for the municipal government of Rome, sent out a call for help. According to Raimondi Slepoi, within 24 hours, researchers in several countries, including Australia, Italy, the U.K. and the U.S., had gathered in a WhatsApp group to hatch a plan. Through a series of rapid exchanges (“I’d wake up in the morning with 500 messages,” Jachimowicz says), the team designed an online experiment, recruited 2,379 participants, gathered and analyzed data and posted the results online—all within the span of a week.
In the study, Italian participants, who were recruited via two online platforms, were randomly assigned to receive one of eight messages encouraging them to practice social distancing: Seven were interventions that applied concepts such as expert power (citing doctors or the Italian Medical Association), social norms (emphasizing that the vast majority of Italians consider the situation to be extremely serious) or prosocial appeals (telling people to remain at home for the sake of others). And one was a control condition that simply stated, “Stay home.” The subjects were then asked to answer a series of questions about their attitudes toward the outbreak and how they planned to react.
While the experiment did not identify notable differences between the various approaches—across all conditions, the vast majority of people said they would stay home—the results did suggest that there were distinctions in who was likely to respond to the messages. Those under the age of 50 were less likely to remain home or to disclose that they were infected. And men were less apt to share the information they had received within their social networks. The team has now launched a second round of testing with a larger sample. According to Jachimowicz, one of the main questions that the researchers will be exploring is how to find interventions that will work specifically for young individuals. And on Wednesday, they launched parallel studies in Germany, Spain, the U.S. and the U.K.
“It’s such a cool study,” says Kate Faasse, a health psychologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia, who was not a part of the Italian study group. “It’s amazing that we have the capacity to collaborate in these huge groups without leaving our homes and to generate this knowledge so quickly.” Faasse and her colleagues have been conducting online surveys to examine whether people’s knowledge and perceptions about the outbreak can predict how likely they are to engage in social distancing and other recommended health behaviors. The team recently completed collecting data from an Australian sample and is currently working on an ongoing study with participants in the U.S.
Several other groups have similar research underway. Molly Crockett, a neuroscientist at Yale University, quickly mobilized her group to launch a study testing the effectiveness of different types of “moral messaging” interventions that are based on her lab’s work on human morality. She and her colleagues have found, for example, that people are more willing to make small sacrifices for the good of others than for themselves—suggesting that a message that focuses on how an action benefits others might be more persuasive than highlighting the potential harms to an individual. Crockett’s team is currently analyzing data from a U.S. sample, and she is in conversations with an organization called Apolitical, which helps connect civil servants and policy makers around the globe. “Our hope is that once we have results we feel confident about, [we can] disseminate them widely,” she says.
Researchers have also assessed methods for fighting misinformation on social media and the role of demographics in the spread and fatality rates associated with COVID-19. A recently released preprint study reveals that two factors that contribute to the coronavirus’s devastating effect in Italy—where the death count is close to 3,000 are the age of the country’s population (the second oldest on earth) and the high level of interaction between the young and old there.
Because of the urgency of the situation, these studies are all happening at an incredibly swift pace. Speed comes with limitations, such as impeding some of the checks and balances that would usually be put in place before scientific information is shared, Lunn says “We’re probably having to take more things on trust than we normally would,” he adds. “If you’ve got a good result, you can save lives by getting it out quickly. [But] I think it’s important that we give the right messages out as scientists.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, many more behavioral science projects are likely to emerge. On Friday the Psychological Science Accelerator (PSA), a network that includes more than 700 researchers in 70 countries, put out a call for “rapid and impactful study proposals on COVID-19,” and it received more than 50 submissions by Tuesday. According to the PSA’s director, psychologist Chris Chartier, the group hopes evaluate the proposals and launch projects within the next week. “The whole idea is to get the evidence out there as real-time as we can,” he says. “We’re hoping to consistently pump out updates and give the timely information to folks that might use it.”
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