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Bacon Masks, Baby Shark, Panic Buying – Behavioural Change Lessons from COVID-19

The global policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes the largest simultaneous behavioural change in human history. Alongside the simple brute force policies of coercing behavioural change, a number of more subtle approaches have been applied, sometimes inadvertently.

All organisational change, whether it’s implementing new systems, redesigning processes, driving cultural change or restructuring organisations, is ultimately about changing behaviour. What lessons does this unprecedented behavioural science experiment provide for organisations seeking to change behaviour?

One early feature of the crisis in many countries was the spate of panic buying, notably of toilet paper. Social media was awash with memes mocking the irrationality of shoppers, yet how many of us can honestly say we didn’t buy larger than normal quantities of certain items?

Humans are profoundly influenced by social norms. If others, particularly others similar to us, are doing something – say, if everyone else is rushing round the supermarket stocking up on essentials – most of us will conclude that we need to follow suit.

Policymakers – and marketers – often use this fact to try to change behaviour. However, it can backfire. For a few days early in the crisis, Australian media was filled with images of Sydney beachgoers flocking to Bondi in their thousands, flouting social distancing guidelines. Amid much handwringing from politicians and other public figures, hardly anyone stopped to consider that flooding the airwaves with images of rule breaking on a grand scale might send the implicit message that “everyone’s doing it, so it’s ok”. Far from discouraging bad behaviour, publicising it as the norm can actually legitimise it.

These examples highlight that organisations looking to change should harness – but beware of – the power of highlighting majority behaviour. If most people are already doing something, highlighting that fact should be a powerful influence on those who aren’t. Equally, highlighting how many people haven’t yet done something is more likely to promote further reluctance than spur compliance.

The UK government has been widely criticised for many aspects of its response to the pandemic. One element of British policy that was hugely effective, however, was the simple, repetitive messaging that accompanied the initial lockdown phase. In just seven mostly one syllable words the government explained, with absolute clarity, the behaviour it wanted citizens to adopt and the reasons for it.

“Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives” was repeated like a mantra by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his senior ministerial colleagues, emblazoned as the visual backdrop to countless interviews and speeches, starring in endless television and radio adverts. The message was more successful than even the most optimistic forecasts. So much so, that ministers described the policy as “too successful”, with far more people staying at home and a far bigger impact on the UK economy than the government had expected.

Sadly, the UK’s initially successful use of simple messaging wasn’t continued and subsequent confusing guidance has contributed to the UK’s ongoing struggles containing the pandemic. It’s telling that the original slogan was re-launched as the UK went into a third national lockdown in early 2021.

The lesson for organisations couldn’t be clearer. Simple, action-oriented messages, easily understood and remembered, repeated often, have powerful impacts on behaviour.

If humans were logical, we’d carefully assess all new information using coldly rational criteria. The message itself would be enough, irrespective of who delivers it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that. Messengers matter, often more than the message itself.

Striking evidence for this comes from the USA, where the outgoing Republican former President has consistently disagreed with health officials on recommended responses to the pandemic. Studies have shown a strong correlation between political preference and self-reported likelihood of adopting anti-COVID behaviours. Democrat voters are more likely to stay home, thoroughly wash hands, or social distance than Republican voters. If you trust the President, you take his reassurances seriously. If you trust health officials and scientists, you heed their warnings.

In Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, the usual conservative dress codes and a widespread preference for pale skin were inverted as millions embraced sunbathing for the first time. The reason? Widely reported statements by popular home-affairs minister Tito Karnavian that sunlight kills the COVID-19 virus. The WHO explicitly states this is a myth, but their global reputation, so diminished by the crisis, is no match for a well-known local politician.

For organisations the lesson is clear: to effectively drive change, ensure you use the right messengers to spread the word. Credibility and trust are far more important than hierarchical authority. Techniques like Organisational Network Analysis can help identify the unofficial influencers within any organisation.

Exactly how far is 2 metres? How about 6 feet? 2 arm lengths?

It’s one thing to know in the abstract, quite another to constantly calculate in real time and space, which makes physical distancing rules difficult to follow, even before circumstances, emotions, or sheer forgetfulness intervene. Far easier to just stand on the circles or behind the lines on the floor.

As many companies have found, setting reduced limits on numbers of people in office meeting rooms has limited impact – far more effective to reduce the number of chairs. Changing the physical environment is a great way of changing behaviour.

Changes to physical environment can be as simple as moving the printers to the other end of the floor to discourage printing, or as complex as re-modelling office architecture to stimulate new collaborative ways of working. As the world emerges blinking into the post-COVID dawn, the profound changes in ways of working unleashed by the pandemic will likely result in major shifts in the way physical space is used, in both workplaces and homes. The power of architecture and environment to influence behaviour will be more important than ever for organisations.

There’s certainly been no shortage of information or instruction when it comes to COVID, but how much do you really remember?

Advertisers have long known the power of the fun, funny, or absurd to stick in the memory - the annoying jingle is a radio and television staple for a reason. With hand washing identified as one of the most important – and easiest – behavioural changes to combat the pandemic, hand washing jingles have proliferated around the world.

Parents of young children, already struggling to balance work and home schooling, were no doubt thrilled to learn that the Wiggles and Baby Shark among others had recorded repetitive tunes to help kids absorb the handwashing message. (Parents: click at your own risk)

Songs aren’t the only means of making pandemic prevention measures fun. Face masks rapidly evolved from boring surgical green or white to an array of fun and fashionable designs and spawned their own hashtag #MaskingForAFriend. One manufacturer of processed meats even produced a bacon-scented mask, though whether this is intended to increase mask wearing or purchases of cured pork products is hard to gauge.

Organisations looking to change employee behaviour might baulk at some of these examples, but the human brain is hardwired to pay attention to what’s most salient, i.e. what grabs our attention. Making something fun, funny, unexpected or memorable is critical to effectively changing behaviour.

Whether organisations are implementing new systems, simplifying processes, or actively trying to change culture, any organisational change is ultimately about changing human behaviour. The COVID pandemic has prompted behavioural change on an unprecedented scale with many lessons still being learned. Using the herd, keeping it simple, choosing messengers carefully, subtly changing the physical environment, and making it fun are as effective at an organisational level as they are for society as a whole.