What Coronavirus teaches us about behaviour

Date: 13/03/2020 Written by: Kelly 9 minutes to read.
Exclusive article written for CityX

This article first appeared in CityX on the 13th March 2020.

People fascinate me. I guess that’s why I became a professional ‘people watcher’ nearly 20 years ago. Ok, that’s not quite my job title but the insights I discover from ‘people watching’ drives everything I do in my work. I help change behaviour -everything from helping people to eat more healthy, recycle more, report crime and donate to charity.

Watching and observing friends, family, business colleagues and complete strangers as Coronavirus takes hold is nothing short of fascinating to a person like me.

So, what is this pandemic ‘panic’ teaching us about behaviour? Firstly, it teaches us that fear works. For some time, academics have argued whether fear-based appeals are effective at changing attitudes, intentions and behaviours.

I understand the doubt. I have watched smokers ignore and even cover up the half-mutated lung on a cigarette packet and continue to puff away. Even making the images gorier hasn’t persuaded the last 15% of smokers in the UK to quit.

But for some, that dreadful fishhook through the face in 2007 or the veins seeping with diseased goop in 2008 was enough. Alongside lots of other measures of course. I think the point is, fear works… for some. It grabs attention, and watching the events unfold in China and Italy has created a sense of fear and panic in many people.

But we didn’t succumb to the same fear and panic when Zika and Ebola hit the headlines. I can’t remember a supermarket stampede for pasta… and I’ll tell you why. For fear to work it has to become ‘immediate’ and ‘relevant’ to us. In other words – we have to believe this will affect us. In the public’s mind, Ebola was too far away and something that only affected Africans. Coronavirus is immediate, it is here in the ‘western world’, right in front of us and it's coming to our villages, towns and cities.

“Anyone who doesn't believe that fear messages can change behaviour should try going into a crowded cinema and shout “FIRE!”.

It’s also new. And there is something fascinating and novel about anything new. We’re intrigued. Add in some new language and our attention is grabbed.  If this disease was called something with flu on the end I wonder if we would have reacted in the same way. We know flu. We understand it. There is something sinister about Coronavirus or COVID-19. It’s rather official and scary sounding.

Coronavirus has also taught us [or confirmed to us] that people are motivated to pursue their narrow economic and material self-interests. When the fear took hold, many people rushed to supermarkets and stockpiled, grabbing enough loo roll to wrap their house up in tissue. Coronavirus doesn’t even affect the bowels but the thought of getting down to your last square hovelled up in a two-story townhouse for a week was enough to drive the extra 10 miles looking for some.

Thankfully, the sharing of pictures on social media showing older, weaker grandparents struggling to buy what they need is enough for some to say, “let’s think about the old folk”. The problem is if we come out to tell people ‘not to stockpile’ it is more likely to drive that behaviour, making the products we can’t get hold of more desirable.  It’s another thing we know about people - we want what we can’t have.

Another thing we know is that people like to copy each other. When the bank Northern Rock collapsed in 2008 people queued for hours to get their money out. Even if it was just a fiver. ‘It’s mine” and even if self-interest was not the motivator, seeing other people do it probably was. We call it social norming in my line of work. In fact, one of my favourite BBC interviews at the time of the collapse was with a pensioner who joined the bank queue. She saw everyone else doing it but thought it was for the M&S sale. We are a funny lot at times.

We also understand that people are heavily influenced by who communicates information. We might prefer to trust Bob, 67 from Essex on Trip Advisor, a complete stranger, on our hotel choice but when it comes to health, our doctors, scientists and experts are still the best people to dish it out. But if they get it wrong, or the person is not very trustworthy or looks like he/she doesn’t have a clue, or likely in this case, cannot give us the answers we are looking for, we might look to Bob in Essex and take his word over the expert and that’s when this mild panic becomes dangerous.

No hand sanitiser? Make your own says ‘whatsupmoms’ on YouTube. Their video is just one in 470,000 on the popular platform. It’s the world we live in today.

Telling people to wash their hands for the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday is however genius. It is a song we universally know – even if English isn’t your first language. It’s long enough for the soap to seep into the cracks and under the nails and we are unlikely to forget this advice when we are being bombarded with so much. I don’t think any other song choice would have worked. But the best bit about this advice is this: – after Coronavirus has been and gone – we will probably sustain this behaviour. Our kids will take this advice into their adulthood and they will teach their kids good handwashing.   

If you look closely, you will discover that our government have been following the [behavioural] science from day one. I imagine a lot of trust has been given over to the many theories on people and behaviour. A few nudges here and there will make a difference. They are right when they say that if we go into lockdown too early, we will fatigue the population. Behavioural science supports this. But they must also be fearful that if they go too late, the people will shoot the messengers – the fantastic and very talented people they wheel out day after day to update us. And then what happens? Well, it’s over to Bob, 67 from Essex to get us out of this mess.

You might also like

Get the latest insights and other interesting changemaker stuff in your inbox.

Once or twice a month, 100% real and interesting, 0% spam.
We create meaningful digital products that connect with people and make positive change possible.

Home of the changemakers.

We just need a bit more info

* indicates required

Marketing Permissions

Social Change will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing. Please let us know all the ways you would like to hear from us:

Marketing preferences

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at rob@social-change.co.uk. We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.

Project Planner