Behavioural science has the power to save lives during the pandemic – the stakes have never been higher

As the world looks tentatively beyond lockdown, creative communications has never been more important.

This is the moment when behavioural science could be a game-changer and save lives, argues Claire Gillis
This is the moment when behavioural science could be a game-changer and save lives, argues Claire Gillis

Behavioural change has always been central to our industry’s mission, but – as social distancing has shown us – achieving it isn’t easy, even with the hard data behind it to show success.

Society’s struggle to comply with new rules proves our habits are hard-wired and stubborn.

But now those measures are on the brink of being eased, the behavioural dynamics are yet more complex, doubling down on the need for effective communications supported with technology.

Protests to end quarantines are spreading across the world, with restless populations desperate to resume normal behaviours.

Yet what if we slide back too quickly? Could we undo those hard-earned benefits and spark a second wave of infections?

We’re walking a tightrope as we look to safeguard lives and livelihoods. Good decision-making is vital – but unless it’s informed by great communications that inspire the right behaviours, our risk of falling increases.

The true test of any creative campaign is its ability to change and sustain new behaviours over the long term.

Behaviour is a moment in time; we can change it today, but if it lapses tomorrow we’re back where we started.

That’s fine if you’re giving up chocolate – you can always try again next week.

But when default behaviours risk contagion, the stakes are considerably higher.

Communications must therefore be persuasive and data driven.

So can we maintain the all-important behaviours that will take us beyond COVID-19?

Studies show it doesn’t take long to return to old habits post-pandemic. In Spain, adoption of preventative measures taken during the swine flu outbreak decreased significantly during its flu epidemic one year later.

Similarly with SARS and avian flu, basic hygiene measures in some countries fell within six months, with many refusing their annual flu shots.

Yet the pattern isn’t absolute.

Hong Kong’s enduring memory of SARS powered a civic responsibility that helped it contain coronavirus; social distancing was instantly obeyed, while mask-wearing and handwashing rapidly became ubiquitous.

Global variation in behaviour only underlines its complexity; our choices – conscious and unconscious – are influenced by personal, biological, socio-political and cultural contexts.

Communications that work in one country may not be effective in another.

As we await a vaccine, we know we can’t afford a long-term lockdown. Measured relaxation is inevitable.

However, with risk still significant, how do we temper the eagerness of those who want to rush back to normal too soon?

Behavioural science suggests ‘belief’ is crucial; if individuals are to sustain changed behaviour, they must believe a threat is still real and the benefits outweigh the costs.

Good communications is key, but creatives must understand the behavioural nuances of their audiences and tailor messages accordingly.

Overcoming COVID-19 will depend on our willingness to maintain the right behaviours for the duration.

When we reach the other side, we must hope the lessons we learned aren’t wasted.

The responsible practices that got us there must be embedded in our muscle memory should pandemic strike again.

If we’re to end up hard-wired to do the right things, comms will inevitably play a leading role.

Claire Gillis is international CEO of WPP Heath Practice

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