Managing the impacts of COVID-19: The role of behavioural and social sciences

18 May 2020

By Professor Susan Michie FAcSS FMedSci (Director of UCL Centre for Behaviour Change) and Michael Sanders (Reader in Public Policy at KCL Policy Institute and Chief Executive, What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care)

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged much of the world, leading to quarantines, lockdowns, and the unprecedentedly vast state intervention in the economies of capitalist or mixed-economy states, supporting the jobs of millions of workers through furlough schemes.

Minimising the toll taken by coronavirus is essential and has been met by a concerted research effort by a wide range of medical scientists, including virologists, vaccinologists and epidemiologists, to increase our understanding of how the virus affects the body and is transmitted between people: how, how quickly via what media, and what is needed to develop vaccines and treatment. People and their behaviour are at the heart of transmission, thus understanding human behaviour is at the heart of suppressing the pandemic.

Behaviour of many groups of people are central to the transmission and impact of corornavirus:  those affected and caring for those affected, those yet to be affected, those that can transmit the disease without showing symptoms. We cannot assume that people will act in particular ways, merely because the government tells them to or imposes sanctions for not following their advice.  The behavioural and social sciences are key to maximising adherence to the government’s advice in the context of managing the pandemic. Sometimes this means informing the policy and advice to enable maximum adherence and impact, while at other times, it can help shape the way that a policy is communicated, which is key to engendering trust and, hence, adherence.

In the lockdowns in the UK and across the world, citizens have been asked to stay indoors and  maintain physical distance when allowed outside, which detrimentally effects them personally (mental and physical health, social relationships), but which has a positive benefit to others and to society at large. Whilst the media has too often portrayed citizens in a negative light as selfish and irresponsible, data show that in the UK the overwhelming majority (90% for many weeks) wanted to adhere and in the main were able to.  And we have witnessed countless examples of generous, altruistic and kind behaviour.

It is important to stress that unlike the selfish, rational agents of economic models, most people in the real world are willing to contribute to these kinds of public goods, motivated by their connection to others. Government’s plans, and communications, should not assume that people are rational self-serving automata, any more than they should assume that people are hyper-altruistic angels.

There are ways in which communications can increase the extent of fellow feeling. Messages that appeal to a shared social identity and collective solidarity, bringing together those at most risk with those at least, have been shown to be effective (e.g. ‘save lives’ and ‘protect the NHS’).

Another principle of good communication is that messages should relate to, and communicate empathy for the people they are aimed at. Research has found that there was no significant difference in this regard between a doctor, an older person, or an immune-compromised young person. Those over 45 are more likely to state their intention to adhere to guidance when they are given an example of an older person, showing the importance of the messenger as well as the message.  Messengers who are trusted or can be identified with are most likely to be engaged with and adhered to.

Next, the things people are asked to do should neither be, nor seem to be, impossible or unreasonable. If social distance in particular is to be adhered to, efforts need to be taken to make sure this is possible, especially in those domains that the government controls, either directly or indirectly. In parks, this has been shown to be challenging in areas: data show that this reflected a lack of opportunity rather than a problem of motivation, hence the appropriate Government response should have been, instead of closing down the parks, to open up golf courses and school playing fields to ensure enough open space.  Asking people to avoid public transport is useless for those without cars or houses near their work, which are often the lower paid in society. Making it clear what is expected in these circumstances with straightforward guidance is needed.

Appeals to public good only work where the motive behind them is viewed as positive, and where the sense that ‘we are all this together’ is maintained. Deviation from the rules, particularly by those with a hand in making them, is likely to undermine much of the positive effects described above.  Also undermining is advice that differentially affects different groups in society, as it weakens the collective solidarity that has been crucial in getting people to adhere to the lockdown, often in challenging circumstances.

Emphasising good behaviour by the vast majority of the public is likely to be more effective than chastising the few who do not. Authoritarian messages can be tempting in the face of defiance of guidance, but are unlikely to work for long, and can backfire, causing resentment. Instead, emphasising the social norm of adherence and using role models, individuals and groups, that are following the rules, is likely to encourage adherence. There is some evidence that these approaches are more effective when the examples used are more relevant or ‘local’ to the recipient, and so tailoring messages by group or by geography is effective.

As we emerge from the lockdown in gradual stages, with different sections of society being asked to do different things and take different levels of risk, it is even more important that these principles be followed. Government messaging can reinforce the rules through clear repetition of precise statements about what is and isn’t allowed, minimising ambiguity and the opportunity for confusion and different interpretations which can create anxiety and conflict.  We are living in highly uncertain and worrying times, which has been taking a huge toll on mental health across the population, especially those living and working in insecure situations.  It is therefore imperative that messengers not gratuitously add to this anxiety by mixed and unclear messaging.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of many western societies, with huge inequalities and a just-in-time approach to policy making.  The pandemic has made the inequalities in our society even clearer: we are all in the same storm together, but in different boats. Lockdown is experienced very differently according to people’s housing, with huge pressures on those crowded into cramped accommodation or living in hostels. Those workers that have been central to get us through this crisis – health and social care workers, transport, delivery and retail workers and bin collectors are, by dint of poverty levels and demography, amongst the most vulnerable to COVID-19 and have been dying at higher rates than the more affluent groups able to work at home.

Given the housing crisis and insecure employment that has been allowed to develop over recent decades, some of this was inevitable.  What was not inevitable was to allow in the first wave of people going back to work, estate agents, nannies, cooks and cleaners to go into other people’s homes when others locked up on their own for weeks are not allowed a friend or family member to visit them at home.  As we come out of the pandemic, the structural (economic, political and social) fault lines of societies are becoming more evident.  There will be no going back to society as it was before but the question faces us: What kind of society do we want and how can we reshape it into a fairer, kinder and more resilient society?  Social and behavioural scientists have an important role to play in that process.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19


Susan Michie FAcSS is Professor of Health Psychology and Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL. Susan’s research focuses on developing the science of behaviour change interventions and applying behavioural science to interventions. She works with a wide range of disciplines, practitioners and policy-makers and  is a contributing member to the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B).


Michael Sanders is Reader in Public Policy at the KCL’s Policy Institute and Chief Executive of the What Works Centre for Children’s Social Care. He is an Associate Fellow of the Blavatnik School of Government at University of Oxford, where he teaches Behavioural Science and Policy, and an affiliate of the Harvard Behavioral Insights Group. He was previously Chief Scientist and Director of Research, Evaluation and Social Action at the Behavioural Insights Team.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article:
This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its Covid-19 programme