Coronavirus is now firmly dominating our minds and raising our cortisol levels. And little wonder. The financial impact is set to be enormous, with factories, tourism destinations, pubs and restaurants closed indefinitely. The events of recent weeks have started a seismic economic wave, the profundity of which has barely begun to be felt, despite the stock market tumbling already.
The short of it is: coronavirus is concerning to all of us and businesses must take urgent steps to stay afloat.
Fortunately, behavioural science can help us understand and combat the virus – at least somewhat.
To see why, we can start by looking at examples of irrationality that abound with respect to the virus, as with almost all other human decision-making processes. The tumbling stock market is evidence of herd behaviour in action, while the stockpiling of goods such as baked beans and antibacterial soap is real-world evidence of the cognitive biases known as scarcity ("I better do it while I still can") and social proof ("If everyone else is doing it, it must be good").
The stockpiling of loo roll (itself hardly an essential item) is rife with Freudian connotations; "anal" behaviours impose structure on the world and have their roots in the strictness of potty training and its rewards and punishments.
An urge to buy loo roll may reflect a subconscious need for order in an increasingly chaotic and "dirty" world; a need for hygiene in a world that is physically and spiritually unclean. Indeed, experimental research has shown that the presence of disgusting or contagious cues makes people more politically and socially conservative in their attitudes.
In fact, people tend to act more irrationally in these times of chaos – we tend to use automatic heuristics "under uncertainty", as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky put it. According to terror management theory, mortality salience has a number of psychological effects, including in-group bias – which may explain some of the irrational prejudice towards Chinese people observed in news stories lately.
Meanwhile, marketers are debating whether the virus will have an effect on sales of Corona beer that is actually positive (due to increased mental availability, in the same way that sales of Mars bars increase whenever the planet Mars is in the news) or negative (due to unpleasant associations, similar to how "chavs" wearing Burberry hats harmed the brand’s sales). Neither outcome, of course, has much to do with logic or rationality.
The fact is that irrational biases influence our behaviour when it comes to serious, life-changing decisions, too, such as medical choices. For instance, there is a whole field of academic study dedicated to the biases exhibited by doctors. One such study found that doctors are 19% more likely to prescribe medication when there’s only one option; a choice of two becomes effortful and doctors are more likely to avoid it.
So, even for the seismic event that is coronavirus, subconscious rules of thumb are likely to influence people’s behaviour. While this seems disheartening, it actually provides wonderful opportunities to guide people’s behaviours and therefore play our part in combating the virus and protecting our businesses at the same time.
Take the impact of a few nudges around handwashing as an example:
A picture of a pair of eyes in washrooms increased handwashing compliance from 15% to 33% in one hospital, since it induces feelings of being watched
From the aforementioned study, the introduction of a citrusy smell primed ideas of cleanliness and increased handwashing from 15% to 47%
The prevalence of handwashing in schools in Bangladesh increased from 17% to 63% after nudges were introduced comprising stickers of footprints leading along the floor towards the sink and stickers of handprints on the sink itself
Handwashing among dormitory students increased by 8% for males and 26% for females when emotional threat messages such as "Poo on you, wash your hands", were introduced in bathrooms
However, behavioural science can help mitigate coronavirus far beyond handwashing alone. An understanding of audiences and how they respond to messaging can be used, for example, to reduce panic among staff and customers alike, so that they make calmer and wiser decisions.
This can also lower attrition in certain industries – for instance, in the events sector, by ensuring attendees and speakers don’t drop out. A psychological understanding can also be used to refine effective interpersonal communication when working from home or to break bad news to customers (such as an order going unfulfilled due to factory closures) in a way that is less likely to negatively impact their behaviour.
It’s important to understand people and optimise messages to enable behavioural change. Much as we think we are rational creatures, the reality is that our decisions and our behaviours are guided by motivations that are far harder to unpick than pure logic. As a result, harnessing behavioural science can have a profound impact on audience behaviours and, ultimately, outcomes.
Patrick Fagan is chief science officer at Capuchin