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Changing Behaviour During Covid-19

What does changing the behaviour of an entire nation look like during a global pandemic, and how do you encourage people to follow the rules?

Everyone responds differently to being told what to do – in democratic societies we are well-accustomed to independence and freedom of choice. However, in the past year, this has changed, basic everyday routines, decisions, and livelihoods have all been altered on a mass scale. Governments around the world have established guidelines and mandatory procedures to reduce the risk of Covid-19. 

The rapidly shifting pace and complex nature of Covid-19 means that governments around the globe sometimes have difficulty responding effectively and efficiently to changes caused by the disease.

This has led to government messaging and overall communication processes becoming skewed and difficult to understand. That being said, there have been several displays of successful compliance from countries around the world, so this begs the question – how can different messaging and communications impact behaviour and compel people to follow the rules?

What is Persuasive Messaging?

Trying to get even one person to pay attention to every detail of what you say is a challenge, now try achieving this with millions. It becomes infinitely more difficult. People lose focus when they aren’t the centre of attention or can’t relate to the story that you are telling them, when the mind wanders, how do you snap it back into focus?

Techniques of persuasion vary and play on the psychology of the human mind. A persuasive message needs to create intrigue, inform the reader, and drive action. Embedded in the central message must be reason and emotion, the idea is that the message will do the work and not the reader

This process has become vital during the pandemic as key government messaging requires focus and adherence. At the beginning of Covid-19, the situation was simple – stay indoors and wash your hands, compliance was high due to heightened fear, uncertainty and the overall anxiety that surrounded the situation.

The shock and awe effect of the early messaging naturally ensured its resonance. However, as the pandemic has progressed, buy-in and adherence to public health guidelines and government messaging are on the wane. Although the driving forces behind this vary, a leading component, particularly in Ireland, is a lack of faith in government communications.

Changing Behaviour Through Social Proofing 

Most of us understand the severity of the ongoing threat, however, encouraging people to follow the rules based on fear can create barriers. 

Years of research and studies have shown us that in times of fear and uncertainty, people alter their behaviour based on what those around them do.

Social norms show that we accept certain societal shifts only if others do first, which creates a mentality of “you go first and see what happens”. 

This has only been amplified with the help of social media where people can gauge these changes on a global scale. In the likes of Ireland and the UK, campaigns have disregarded these social principles that affect human behaviour, and instead, have gone for the approach of telling the public to do the right thing, or else. This approach removes the incentive and leaves disenfranchised public sick to the teeth of fear mongering. 

Countries like New Zealand have taken a different approach. They have focused their efforts on social harmonization – encouraging people to come together and act as a unit.  

Studies have shown that people who followed guidelines the most were not those who thought the rules were more agreeable or those who were more vulnerable to the disease. The most committed to following the rules consistently were those whose friends and families were following the rules. 

The UK and Ireland have mainly focused on the responsibility of the individual and the vulnerability of others instead of emphasizing shared values that benefit the whole community. 

Social proofing works because people rely on the opinions of others to make decisions. Before purchasing on Amazon, you almost subconsciously check the reviews before you make your decision. 

By demonstrating real acts of compliance through the likes of social media the government can help convince the public that following the rules is the right thing to do.

Comparing Government Messaging on Covid-19: Ireland Vs The World 

Every country has had similar approaches that have been tailored to fit the context of the current situation. As previously mentioned, we make decisions based on the actions of others, this could be said for governments also. The “you go first and see what happens” concept seems to fit the Irish government’s approach as they look to other countries like the UK and New Zealand for guidance.

The Irish government have been accused of conveying mixed messaging. There has been a lack of coordination and consistency between what government officials are communicating with the media. 

For example, in February, Taoiseach Micheal Martin stated there could be about two more months of lockdown which came after comments made by the Tanaiste Leo Varadkar saying that construction could reopen after March 5th.

This creates a lack of credibility and confusion among the public for what the government is telling them which affects overall decision making regarding following the rules.
By doing this, the government is creating barriers to habit formation within the context of the guidelines. 

Compare this with the likes of New Zealand where the message has been clear and easy to understand. They introduced a humanistic element to their information design, they focused on social change and speed of delivery by getting ahead of uncertainty and speculation. The New Zealand government’s team chose to focus on the impact on people’s daily lives and steps they could take to protect one another. They created a single hub – Unite Against Covid-19  for all news and updates relating to the pandemic. This creates simplicity and cohesion among messaging. 

The Circle of Persuasion

How a brand tailors its message and understands its target audience is the cornerstone of any successful campaign. This approach is no different from the government’s strategy for dealing with Covid-19. You are trying to convince a select group of people to take a certain action. 

The call to action must trigger the person, appear easy to do, and then reward them for completion. Once they repeat this the basis for the habit will then form. 

Creating a ‘feedback loop’ is a technique that is commonplace in User Experience & Interface design, however, the fundamental principles can be applied to persuading the public to change their behaviours regarding Covid-19. Altering behaviour starts with habit building. A positive feedback loop is meant to trigger, motivate and reinforce actions. This is done through reward initiatives. 

The action taken is met with a positive reaction, which reinforces the original decision to take the action in the first place. For example, you train your dog by rewarding them with a treat for completing a task, after a while, you take the treat away however they still complete the task. The dog’s behaviour has been reinforced by the expectation of the reward – positive outcomes reinforce positive behaviour. 

Trying to alter the behaviour of people to form a habit must be met with incentive and accessibility to repeat the original action, in this case, continually. The UK government has taken steps towards this by providing specific dates for reopening. 

The sustained adherence to the guidelines laid out by the government (staying within 5km, 2m apart, washing hands, etc.) means that the public will be rewarded with the reopening of public services. 

The 5 habit-promoting strategies for Covid-19 compliance recommended by communications professor Dominique Brossard, PhD:

  1. Make the behaviour easy to start and repeat
  2. Make the behaviour rewarding to repeat
  3. Tie the behaviour to an existing habit
  4. Alert people to behaviours that conflict with existing habits and provide alternative behaviours
  5. Provide specific descriptions of desired behaviours


The framework for adapting behaviour is based on universal human psychology, the principles don’t change, they simply integrate into any given process. Whether it’s getting people to keep using your brand’s app or to simply wear a mask, the strategy stays the same.

Changing Public Opinion Using People of Influence 

We take the opinions of those we trust and aspire to be.

Word-of-mouth in marketing is a powerful tool for converting consumers to customers. Essentially you are getting people to do the heavy lifting for you by endorsing your brand through a trusted relationship. 

Governments have been using “people of influence” to convince public opinion on the safety and efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines. Former US President Barack Obama took the vaccine on live television to demonstrate how easy the process is. Recently President Michael D. Higgins followed suit. 

In general, the reason for the efficacy of this strategy is because people are influenced by those they aspire to be, that’s why social media influencers are so effective in connecting with their followers.

In Israel, the government leveraged local Rabbis by getting them vaccinated first to remove any barriers of uncertainty the Israeli public might have had. 

The fact that Rabbis are held in such high regard means that the public there trusts their opinion resulting in increased compliance and mass adoption. 

The NFL has taken steps towards eliminating vaccine hesitancy. According to NFL chief medical officer Dr Allen Sills, they are focusing on education and ensuring people have the facts. They are proposing fewer restrictions for vaccinated individuals along with added “privileges”, therefore incentivizing players and staff to seek the vaccine while promoting internal compliance.

Persuasion & Accessibility 

To persuade someone to do something, they must feel that they can do the thing being asked of them. Breaking down barriers increases the probability of the action being repeated. 

Persuading the person into forming the habit centres around how accessible that action is to create a reaction. 

For example, getting people to wash their hands was made more accessible because of the introduction of public sanitizing stations at entry points to shops, restaurants, and bars. Making it as easy as possible for people to repeat the action and form the habit.

Key Takeaways 

Being asked to do something new will impact our willingness to do it, and there are several reasons for this. The people around us influence every decision we make whether we’re conscious of it or not, we prioritise social validation over our own, and we mitigate risk by allowing others to go first. 

We are social animals who pay attention to cues that our minds deem “important” or people around us find interesting. By tapping into the collective, recognising the “social influencers”, and realizing that we are creatures of habit you can change the perspective and behaviour of groups a lot more effectively. 

Persuasion revolves around accessibility – how easy is it for me to keep doing this?

If you really want to create change, you need to remove as many barriers as possible to make it as easy as possible to perform that behaviour and to continually do it on an ongoing basis is integral to creating the habit and making it stick. 

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