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Nudge is not the enemy

by | May 15, 2020 | Behaviour, Communications, Crisis management, Language, Nudge theory | 0 comments

Yes, we are still in the midst of a pandemic with a vile virus that will be around for some time. The death toll is staggering, but…but the changes in behaviour in the UK at least (I can only speak for the UK, as it’s where I live) have also been staggering. Right at the start of this hitting the UK I noticed some negative articles and commentary about the use of nudge theory in tackling the pandemic. I’m not an expert in nudge, I’ll leave that to the actual nudge unit but I am a fan of their work, and behavioural science in general, and I’ve written about it before.

It normally takes many attempts, with lots of testing, and a hefty period of time to achieve change. According to the documents released out of Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies),  the experts predicted only a 65% compliance with any suggested changes. By changes I mean various stages of any kind of UK lockdown. Now we are the other side of the peak and the government has announced a plan of sorts for coming out of the lockdown, a survey shows that 80% of adults left their home only for the permitted reasons if at all. The level of compliance to behaviours completely at odds with our ‘normal’ way of life is quite staggering (to me). And yet nudge still has detractors?

BIT ran a webinar recently explaining some of their work, both in the UK and US on Covid 19 comms. It’s really interesting and freely available should you wish to watch it, however I do strongly disagree with one of the opening remarks. Covid 19 is not a behavioural science problem; it’s a viral disease problem with a behavioural science response. Key bits I took from the webinar are their use of plain English, their keep it simple philosophy, the fact that the social distancing messaging had higher recall than the hand washing messaging, even though social distancing was a very new concept and hand washing should be every day and intrinsic, the importance of explaining the why (this is also a theme throughout all the Sage documents) and the fact that when crafting text messaging for the very vulnerable group they focussed them at those in tower blocks without private gardens. And the results really do speak for themselves – the compliance numbers linked to in the last paragraph – though some press reports would have you believe we’re a nation of flouters and covidiots.

The messaging around the pandemic from the government has not been perfect, far from it and even more so with the new ‘stay alert.’ which has led to mass confusion, criticism and interpretation. Also, the message around the NHS being open for business has fallen on deaf ears with scarily low numbers being seen in A&E, and suspected cancer referrals also dangerously low. Some people scoff at the need for basic messaging of hand washing, but once upon a time surgeons just willy nilly treated multiple sick people with their unwashed hands and wondered why they died. Thank goodness for Dr Ignaz Semmelweis  – though he was only believed posthumously about the link between hand hygiene and disease. So yes we do need periodic reminders about this basic behaviour.

I know bashing the handling of the pandemic is par for the course but I do think we’ll look back on this time and marvel at how quickly and compliantly the majority of the UK public significantly changed their behaviours in a ridiculously short space of time. Longer term who knows which behaviours we’ll hold on to – no more shaking hands, less reliant on shop bought bread, more shopping local in general? Personally I’d like to see spitting treated with the same disdain and zero tolerance, as a potential carrier of disease, for eternity – it’s vile, pandemic or no pandemic. I also don’t want hugging to ever be a thing of the past.

To sum up, I think science should be the guiding light in a science based pandemic, backed up by data, and with behavioural scientists advising on what we the public need to do to help keep the disease from spreading in our communities. Nudge is not the enemy.

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