How social & behavioural science can support COVID-19 pandemic response

Introduces a very timely paper on the role of social and behavioural research in the current crisis

[Guest post by my Middlesex colleague Valerio Capraro. In this post Valerio reports on a very timely paper - download here - co-authored by 36 academics worldwide.]

Social and behavioral sciences can support efforts to identify effective public health messages, encourage compliance with government directives, design institutional responses that are well-calibrated to human behavior, sustain prosocial motivations in large, disconnected societies, manage anxiety and loneliness, identify cultural factors that can minimize the spread of the virus and motivate compassion for, and costly actions that benefit, vulnerable groups. The current paper reviews insights derived from several particularly relevant areas of research in the social and behavioral sciences. For each of these areas, we highlight relevant findings, derive insights of potential use to policy makers, leaders, and the general public, and highlight areas where future research is needed.

Navigating threat

This section discusses how people perceive and respond to threats during a pandemic and the downstream consequences for decision-making and intergroup relations.

  • Pandemics are often associated with rampant cases of discrimination and cases of individual assault, especially against outgroups. But pandemics may also offer opportunities to reduce distances. For example, 21 countries donated medical supplies to China in February, and China has reciprocated. Government officials can highlight events like these to improve out-group attitudes.
  • The media typically focus on the percentage of people who die, and less so on those who survive. Providing the opposite frame may help to educate the public and relieve some people’s feelings of panic.
  • To allow people to work with each-other rather than against each-other, the key factor is the emergence of a sense of shared identity which leads people to be concerned and care for others. It can be encouraged by addressing the public in collective terms and by urging us to act for the common good.

Social and Cultural Factors

This section reviews how social and cultural factors can affect response to the pandemic, and how this can be used to protect and promote healthy behavior.

  • People are influenced by perceptions of norms, especially when they come from people with whom they share identity. Messages that provide ingroup models for norms (e.g., members of your community) may be most effective.
  • The spread of COVID-19 will tighten communities. A critical question is whether loose societies (UK, USA, Italy) will adapt quickly to the virus. Countries accustomed to prioritizing freedom over security may have more difficulty coordinating in the face of a pandemic. We describe some of these issues in the section on social support and coping below.

Science communication

This section discusses the challenges associated with different types of misinformation during a pandemic as well as strategies for engaging in effective science communication and persuasion around public health.

  • People are more drawn to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs are frustrated. Conspiracy theories can have harmful consequences: belief in conspiracy theories has been linked to vaccine hesitancy, climate denial, extremist political views, and prejudice. Some evidence suggests that inoculating people with factual information prior to exposure can reduce the impact of conspiracy theories.
  • Fake news about COVID-19 has proliferated widely. One approach is to debunk using fact-checking and correction. However, these may not keep up with the vast amount of false information. One prebunking approach involves psychological inoculation. For example, preemptively exposing people to small doses of misinformation techniques or providing subtle prompts that emphasize accuracy.
  • Other approaches that increase the likelihood of the information being understood: credibility of the source, messages focusing on the benefits to the recipient, aligning message with recipient’s moral values. For health issues, there is some evidence that a focus on protecting others can be more effective (e.g., “wash your hands to protect your parents and grandparents”).

Moral Decision-Making

In this section, we consider how research on morality and cooperation can encourage prosocial behaviors.

  • Moral decision-making during a pandemic involves uncertainty. Research suggests people are more risk-averse when their decisions affect others compared to themselves, suggesting that focusing on risks to others (rather than oneself) may be more effective in convincing individuals to practice public health behaviors. Research shows also that focusing on worst-case scenarios, even if they are uncertain, can encourage people to make sacrifices for others.
  • Fighting a global pandemic requires large-scale cooperation. Sanctioning defectors or rewarding cooperators typically promote cooperation but are costly. Cheaper techniques: providing cues that make the morality of an action salient; providing cues suggesting that other people are already cooperating.
  • Moral elevation is the feeling of being uplifted and inspired by others’ prosocial, selfless acts, and this experience prompts observers to also act with kindness and generosity themselves. Thus, exceptional role models can motivate people to put their own values into action.


Crises create a strong demand for leadership and this demand is present in all the groups to which we belong: our family, our local community, our workplace, and our nation. What should leaders do?

  • The first responsibility of leaders in times of crisis is to set aside personal or partisan interests and cultivate an inclusive sense of “us”.
  • Solidarity within and between nations is critical during a global pandemic. The belief in national greatness can be maladaptive in a number of ways. For instance, it is likely to promote greater focus on protecting the image of the country, rather than on caring for its citizens.

Stress and coping

Distancing threatens to produce an epidemic of loneliness. There are strategies to mitigate these outcomes.

  • We suggest the term “social distancing” be replaced when possible with “physical distancing”, to highlight that deep social connection with a broader community is possible even when people are physically apart through the use of technology.
  • Major stressors alter the trajectories of our intimate relationships. Divorce rates typically surge, but also marriage and birth rates. People should calibrate expectations for the relationship to the circumstances. Continuing to expect the same level of excitement and adventure from the relationship is a recipe for disappointment.
  • It is important to instill adaptive mindsets, guiding individuals towards the mindsets that this illness is manageable, their bodies are capable, and that this can be an opportunity to make positive changes in the world.

Related YouTube video


Van Bavel, J. J., Boggio, P., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., Crockett, M., … Willer, R. (2020, March 24). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response.

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