Behavioral experts propose tools to adopt pandemic habits, such as showing people that they are doing the right thing and emphasizing that this is the new normal
If I tell him not to touch his face, that it is dangerous for his health and to fight the pandemic, he probably agrees. But still, you will touch your eyes, nose, or mouth multiple times before finishing this article. Because human behavior does not work like this: it is not enough to tell us not to do something, even if we are convinced. People have great difficulty changing their habits, even when our health is at stake: to tell smokers. And in this pandemic, until the vaccine arrives, it is human behavior that saves us. As experts say, now we can only fight the virus using tools from the 19th century or earlier: putting on masks correctly, not touching the T-zone of the face (eyes, nose, mouth), keeping physical distance even with visits at home, coughing inside the elbow, washing your hands … How to convert all these essential precautions into new habits, into automated behaviors? Every day we read about the science of vaccines and treatments, what does science say about these tools, the ones we all have for this battle?
“We must increase our attention to behaviors that people can adopt to protect themselves and others,” explains Robert West of University College London (UCL). “We cannot think that it will be enough just to tell people this; We need to go much further in training and supporting people to do these things effectively, “adds this specialist in behavioral science applied to health. West is the main author of a study, published in Nature Human Behavior, which details everything that is known in his field to offer a complete toolbox with specific tables for health authorities to achieve this healthy behavior change in the population.
“If you show on the news that young people are acting stupid or dangerous, that is enough to make it seem normal, even if it is later reported. We need a much greater emphasis on showing people that they are doing the right thing and emphasizing that this is the new normal. ”
As when proposing a healthy diet to an obese person, menu is as important as adherence, that is, the degree of compliance over time: it is one thing to know that you should eat more vegetables and another to get it incorporated. as a habit. It seems obvious, but if the conditions to comply are not met (shortage of masks, tight physical spaces, lack of resources to stay at home …), it will not be met. For prevention, it is essential that the healthiest choices are the easiest to make, the most accessible for all, regardless of their class and condition.
But there are behaviors that will require profound changes in our way of being and socializing. In some cases, at the beginning, it will even be rude to force a friend or family member who comes to our homes from phase 1, for example, to keep their distance or put on a mask. Washing your hands is a concrete and positive action today, so it will be easier to incorporate. And sneezing in one elbow can be practiced until the reflex is incorporated. But it is almost impossible to mentally incorporate a non-action such as not touching your face, so they intend to use behaviors that slow or replace it. The study suggests some of the Behavioral Insights Team’s proposals, such as always having clean handkerchiefs on hand or using the back of the wrist to scratch. It may also be helpful to get used to putting your hands in your pockets, interlocking your fingers, or folding your arms under your armpits.
To break the habit of touching the T zone (which we play between 10 and 35 times per hour) you could train contrary habits, such as keeping your hands below shoulder level or creating physical barriers (such as masks and glasses). But there is an added problem: we find it difficult to understand the importance of something like this. There is a mental mechanism, a cognitive bias, that makes us think that there must be a proportionality between a problem and its solution: just as it seems ridiculous to kill flies with gunshots, we find it hard to internalize that the solution to the greatest health crisis in a century is in our hand and goes to some extent to stop touching our nose.
Reicher, an adviser to the UK authorities, insists that “the public is not the problem in a crisis, it is the solution.” And he adds: “Our strength and resistance reside in our community”
The study, also signed by specialist Susan Michie (UCL) and Richard Amlôt, head of Behavioral Science in English Public Health, explains that the ability to carry out personal protective behaviors requires people to understand what to do, under what precise circumstances it should be done, how to do it and why it is important. It also requires the development of appropriate skills and techniques, which in some cases will have to be trained, such as certain cleaning or putting on masks: the authorities should disseminate all kinds of clear and detailed tutorials. But, in addition, motivation is essential: people must feel a strong need to do it, and that’s where the social factor comes into play. The social reproach. The imitation. “Yes, it is your life, do what you want, but now you are responsible for my life. You have a responsibility to me, “repeats New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Citizens must perceive that the behavior is rewarded within the group with which they identify, to see the people of that group doing it.
“If you show on the news that young people are acting stupid or dangerous, that is enough to make it seem normal, even if it is later reported. We need to place a much greater emphasis on showing people that they are doing the right thing and emphasizing that this is the new normal, ”says the University College expert. “People are gregarious,” ditch. “Humans have built-in mechanisms to imitate each other. This means that the more we show people who perform behaviors that we want to promote, the more people will automatically follow this leadership, “says West.
The study notes that different personal protective behaviors seem to require different types of intervention. Persuasion will be crucial to motivate, also through help, incentives and punishments. Another recent study showed that the trust and credibility of the authority recommending these actions is critical, and that polarization and disinformation can undermine that responsible public response. During the Ebola crisis, health recommendations were placed in the hands of religious leaders in Sierra Leone communities, after unsuccessful attempts by foreign experts.
“We cannot think that it will be enough just to tell people about it; We need to go much further in training and supporting people to do these things effectively. “
Now there are still people who are shy about wearing a mask or looking like a hygiene fanatic, is it possible that we go from the shame of wearing it to the shame of not wearing them? “You just have to look at fashion to see how quickly things can change: clothes and hairstyles that are stupid one day are normal and attractive weeks later. The crux of the masks is that since the benefit will only emerge if people wear them in the right situations, we should avoid reaching a situation where people are stigmatized for not wearing them where they provide no benefit, ”says West.
Social psychologist Stephen Reicher, adviser to the UK and Scottish authorities, highlights from the report that adherence to restrictive measures “is not just about motivation but about clarity and timeliness.” “In general, people are highly motivated to support policies like the blockade. If they go out, it’s generally because they can’t afford to stay home and put food on the table, ”says Reicher of St. Andrews University. For this expert, campaigns should be considered counting that “the public is not the problem in a crisis, it is the solution.” It has been seen in all measurements: Citizens across the planet are overwhelmingly supporting such costly and self-sacrificing measures as these. “Our strength and resistance reside in our community,” insists Reicher, who criticizes the idea of de-escalation as a liberation: “We do not get rid of restrictions, we change them for others.”
That collective force can also be seen in every protective behavior, says Reicher: “The key with masks is that they don’t protect you from others, they protect others from you. Therefore, using them, which is a nuisance, is a prosocial act ”. And he gives as an example: “We Spaniards are compassionate people, we care about others, especially the most vulnerable, so we wear masks.”
100 years and 11 months ago, Science magazine published an article on the lessons of the flu pandemic, pointing out three factors that slowed prevention: people were unaware of the risks they were running, physical distancing goes against nature. human, and people sometimes act as a danger, unconsciously, to themselves and others. Science, also that of human behavior, has come a long way during this time to provide tools that help us not to make those three mistakes.