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To tackle coronavirus, behavioural science needs a shake-up

We are facing one of the largest behavioural exercises of our lifetime. Around the globe, it is our everyday public behaviours and individual actions that play a fundamental role in the spread and transmission of Coronavirus (the WHO lists 13 behaviours that are critical). It’s increasingly evident that understanding and changing behaviour is at the heart of any sustainable response to Coronavirus.


And yet, like the rest of the world, behavioural scientists have found themselves woefully unprepared.


In recent years, behavioural science has emerged as a popular field of study that combines insights from social and cognitive psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics to more deeply understand human behaviour. Behavioural science is rooted in a predominantly evidence-based approach that draws on theories, research methods and scientific frameworks to diagnose human biases, beliefs, perceptions and deep-set motivations. Behavioural design is a more recent offshoot of behavioural science and leverages these scientific insights to design solutions that are rigorously measured and evaluated.

Adopting a behavioural science lens is increasingly common practice in the private and public sector. In health, for example, behavioural science has been applied as a toolkit across a number of domains, from increasing vaccinations and medication adherence, to reducing stigma around HIV, and optimising health-related messaging and communication. Many of these interventions and solutions draw upon tried-and-tested levers of behaviour such as social norms in messaging, and incentives and motivations.


However, in this pandemic, we’re in uncharted territory. Behavioural scientists have found themselves without a reliable and credible database to rapidly lean on and deliver behavioural solutions. In this race against the clock, researchers around the globe are now making up for lost time with rapidly assembled task forces and reviews, and in so doing, paving a new path for behavioural science.


I see this path as consisting of three important principles:


The first principle is rapid response. Global and localised task forces of scientists and researchers have to swiftly set clear research agendas and conduct studies in real-time. For example, the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Ireland pieced together a review of research and interventions on key behaviours such as hand washing, face touching and risk perception in the space of a week. Other global task forces are conducting studies testing the effectiveness of messaging in hard-hit countries such as Italy, Germany and the UK.


At the same time, this new reality for behavioural science requires flexibility. Despite evidence being a cornerstone of behavioural science, researchers can no longer hold themselves to the same stringent guidelines. While this does not mean a trade off to the integrity of research, it is about allowing the space for more intuition-led ideas, quicker pivots and less rigorous measurement and evaluation. This may alsos mean collaborating with our more human-centred neighbouring disciplines such as human-centred design, and using this fusion to deliver solutions that are both robust but also creative and immersive in the communities we serve. This is particularly pertinent in countries like India, where millions are unable to socially distance and have the same access to hand-washing facilities, and more innovative measures are needed.


Finally, open-source sharing and collaboration should become the norm. Now is not the time to protect our research and work in silos. Countries around the world, especially those without formalised behavioural research teams, can benefit greatly from open-source platforms and expertise. In Germany, for example, researchers have set up the COVID-19 Snapshot Monitoring (COSMO) survey to offer a rapid evaluation tool of public sentiment and its fluctuations across indicators such as trust, fear, well-being. The dataset and insights then form a weekly update for project partners, government officials and journalists. The WHO has now adapted the study protocol and questionnaire to allow other countries to participate at no cost. We need more of these initiatives, quickly.


Yes, the path forward is filled with uncertainty and the learning curve is steep, but we can be sure that through this pandemic, behavioural scientists and the rest of the world will be better prepared in the future.



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