August 6, 2020

National Academies Highlights Strategies for Encouraging Protective Behaviors During Pandemic

A new publication from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine presents strategies for encouraging people to adopt health-protective behaviors to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The publication states that people form new, health-protecting habits when they repeat behaviors that are rewarding, when they feel that they have some power to control their health outcomes, and when they have information about the appropriate way to practice those behaviors. The publication also clarifies that research has shown that simply explaining the science of COVID-19 and its risk is unlikely to persuade people to change their behaviors.

The publication focuses on the wearing of face coverings, physical distancing, and handwashing and provides examples of communications and actions that encourage these behaviors. For example, the publication recommends explicit messages such as “maintain at least six feet of separation from others” instead of “socially distance” to encourage proper spacing between people.

Measures that increase the likelihood of behavior change include making the behavior easy to start and repeat, tying the behavior to an existing habit, and providing specific descriptions of desired behaviors. Successful communications about COVID-19 use clear, consistent, and transparent messaging; appeal to the collective good of the community; and link preventive behaviors to people’s identities.

“The science of risk communication makes clear that merely explaining the science behind the need for behavior change will not translate to actual change in attitudes and behaviors,” the report reads. “Health interventions designed to encourage the uptake and maintenance of behaviors . . . and influence social norms have been shown to be more successful than informational campaigns alone.”

A free PDF of the report is available from the National Academies Press.