Recently, Dr. Deborah Birx, the Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House, declared there was only one thing available to change the course of the pandemic in the foreseeable future. Behaviors—behaviors that diminish activities, such as violations of social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines, that harm the general good in our battle against the COVID-19 virus. The problem is truly serious, and persuasion scientists like me ought to have something useful to say about it as we begin to emerge from lockdown status. I can offer a pair of recommendations.
AVOID THE BIG MISTAKE
First, communicators must stop highlighting accounts and images of undesirable behaviors on the part of some citizens: exercisers crowding hiking paths, revelers packing bars and beaches—many without face masks. Instead, they ought to be featuring the many more of us who are doing the opposite and acting thoughtfully on behalf of the larger community. Here’s my evidence.
Arizona, where I live, includes within its borders the Petrified Forest National Park–a geologic wonder containing hundreds of petrified logs, shards, and crystals—that receives nearly a million visitors a year. Some of the visitors steal petrified rock shards and crystals. The theft forms an ongoing, fundamental threat to the Park. In reaction, Park managers have placed a huge sign at the entrance to the site requesting visitors to refrain from removing fossils.
A while ago, one of my former graduate students decided to explore the Park with his fiancée, whom he described as the most honest person he’d ever known—someone who had never failed to replace a paper clip or rubber band she’d borrowed. Yet, at the Park entrance, as the couple read the large “no-theft-please” sign, something in its wording provoked her to respond so entirely out of character that it left her partner stunned. Within its plea, the sign declared:
YOUR HERITAGE IS BEING VANDALIZED EVERYDAY
BY THEFT LOSSES OF PETRIFIED WOOD OF 14 TONS
A YEAR, MOSTLY A SMALL PIECE AT A TIME.
Whereupon, the scrupulously honest new visitor whispered, “We’d better get ours, too.”
What was it about the sign’s wording that transformed an honorable young woman into an environmental criminal? It was the force of social norms, woefully mispurposed. The wording contained a mistake, a big mistake, often made by well-meaning communicators. To mobilize the public against an undesirable activity, they bemoan it as regrettably frequent. The mistake is not unique to environmental protection programs. Information campaigns stress that alcohol and drug use is intolerably high, that adolescent suicide rates are alarming, and that too few citizens exercise their right to vote. Although these claims may be both true and well-intentioned, the campaigns’ creators have missed something critically important: Within the lament, “Look at all the people who are doing this undesirable thing” lurks the undercutting message, “Look at all the people who are doing it.” In trying to alert the public to the danger of a problem, these communicators can make it worse, by exaggerating its frequency.
To explore the possibility, my colleagues and I conducted an experiment at the Petrified Forest National Park, where on average 2.95 percent of visitors per day engaged in fossil theft. We alternated a pair of signs in high theft areas of the park. With the signs, we wanted to register the effects of anti-theft pleas informing visitors either that a lot of others steal from the Park or that that few others do. Echoing the message of the Park’s entrance signage, our first type of sign urged visitors not to take wood, while depicting a scene showing three thieves in action. It nearly tripled theft, to 7.92 percent. Our other sign also urged visitors not to take wood; but contrary to the counterproductive social proof message, it communicated, accurately, that few people steal from the Park by depicting a lone thief. This sign, which marginalized thievery (rather than normalizing it), reduced larceny almost by half, to 1.67 percent.
Other studies have documented the unintended negative consequences of trying to move people away from a detrimental action by lamenting its frequency. After an education program in which several young women described their eating disorders, audience members came to show increased disorder symptoms. After a suicide prevention program informing New Jersey teenagers of the alarming number of adolescents who take their own lives, participants became more likely to see suicide as a potential solution to their own problems. After exposure to an alcohol use deterrence program in which participants role-played resisting their peers’ repeated urgings to drink, junior high school students came to believe that alcohol use was more common among their peers than they’d originally thought.
In short, government depictions of citizens’ coronavirus-related actions should avoid employing information that normalizes undesirable conduct; instead they should normalize desirable conduct, such as is communicated in depictions similar to these: https://www.cntraveler.com/gallery/coronavirus-quarantine-a-look-at-empty-streets-highways-and-bridges-from-paris-to-florida; https://www.cntraveler.com/gallery/photos-of-italy-on-lockdown-from-a-vacant-colosseum-to-empty-churches-on-easter; https://www.cntraveler.com/gallery/photos-of-paris-during-coronavirus-from-empty-streets-to-messages-of-hope-on-the-eiffel-tower
FIND AND DELIVER THE RIGHT NAME
A few months ago, I received a request from the government of Italy for help with the dire situation its people were facing in their COVID-19 cataclysm. One important goal they had was “making sure people stick to the quarantine and to social distancing.” They asked which psychological levers I would recommend pushing. The one I highlighted is communicated social disapproval, which I believe is enormously influential in directing human conduct. Once again, here’s my evidence.
During the most recent portion of my research career, I’ve focused on how to employ persuasion science to move people in more environmentally friendly directions. I’ve asked the “how” question in a variety of environmentally-relevant domains; but, my team and I began by trying to decrease littering in public places. Although we performed more than a dozen experiments, no matter what we tried, we were never able to eliminate littering completely in any condition of any experiment—except one. In the study, all participants returned to their cars in a parking lot to find a handbill attached to their vehicle’s windshield. We recorded whether they littered the handbill before driving away. If left to their own devices, they did so 33% of the time. In a different condition, on their way to the parking area, participants witnessed a man throw a bag he was carrying into a waste container, which knocked participants’ littering rate down to 17%. In a final condition, as they approached the parking area, we arranged for participants to see a man disapprovingly pick up litter from the ground and deposit it in a waste container. Not one of them then littered the handbill on their vehicle, even after the man had long left the scene. To suppress the act of littering, displaying social disapproval of the act was exceedingly effective.
How could we harness the power of social disapproval to diminish the number of those who disregard proper-conduct recommendations in Italy…or here? Research by my colleague in the UK, Steve Martin, offers a hint. Steve’s team has done studies designed to reduce “fare dodging” on trains and subways in several cities. One strategy that has proved successful has been to do an initial online survey in which respondents were asked to list a word or words they would use to describe someone who didn’t pay his or her train fare. Then, an information campaign was created in which the public was told which name was nominated most often; it was “Cheater.” The campaign’s social disapproval message, appearing on signs at train stops and describing the survey’s finding, significantly reduced the problem.
Something like this could be done by government agencies of any nation fighting the COVID-19 outbreak. The campaign could honestly state that, on the basis of the survey, “This is the word people will say to themselves about you, or out loud to you, if they see you violating proper practice.” Although I would let the survey results determine the winner, in the war we are waging against an interspecies for, I have a hope for that word: “Collaborator with the enemy.”
It might not bring violations to zero; that’s asking too much. But, I’m confident it would help.