OPINION29 September 2021

How behaviour shaped the pandemic

Behavioural science Covid-19 Opinion Public Sector UK

Behavioural science has been vital in the fight against Covid-19, and our understanding of human behaviour will shape the pandemic’s development, argues Stephen Reicher.

People in Covid-19 testing queue

To understand how any system works, its strengths and its flaws, it needs to be subjected to stress. And so a crisis is always a learning experience. The Covid-19 crisis – the greatest of our generation – has taught us much about the nature of our society. But it has also taught us much about ourselves and about the nature of human behaviour. I want to highlight three lessons in particular.

The first, and most straightforward, lesson concerns the importance of behaviour, of understanding behaviour and hence of the behavioural sciences. The life scientists have done a remarkable job in coming to understand the virus and how it transmits. The development of vaccines to counter the virus is a phenomenal achievement.

But understanding transmission is of little use unless we can change behaviour to limit transmission, and that is a particularly difficult task given that the virus spreads by exploiting what people value most: intimacy. Equally, having vaccines achieves nothing unless we can persuade people to get vaccinated.

Take an obvious example. The more people we have contact with, the more likely we are to spread (and receive) the virus. So  whether the R rate is above or below one, and hence whether the pandemic grows or shrinks is critically dependent on our rate of social contact. This stood at around 11 or 12 in the UK before to pandemic, fell to three at the height of lockdown, and it has gradually risen to around five right now.

If it were to go back to pre-pandemic levels we would be in deep trouble. One reason why the future of the pandemic is so unpredictable is precisely because our social behaviour is so critical to its course. That’s also why the modellers and life scientists realise that they need to work in concert with behavioural scientists.

Another example. If people do get infected, it is crucial that they self-isolate in order to avoid infecting others. At various times in advisory meetings where we have been shown wildly different modelling  projections of the how things will progress – with the best case scenarios being a decline in infections and the worst case being such a spike that would lead the NHS to be overwhelmed – I have asked what is the single most important factor in determining which projection is most accurate.

The answer has always been the same: whether people fully self-isolate or not. Behaviour matters. And the most effective way of beating Covid-19 is for behaviour to change.

The second lesson is that behaviour is not all about psychology. This is clear if we return to the examples used above. When it comes to the number of contacts we have with others, the first lockdown saw poor people and ethnic minorities some six times more likely to break lockdown.

This had nothing to do with motivation. It was entirely to do with the ability to stay isolated at home and put food on the table. Or again, as infections surged in the autumn of 2020, ministers put the blame on people, especially young people, meeting up and partying.

Young people were getting infected not because they partied more but because they are more likely to live in multi-occupancy flats, to use public transport and to work in public facing jobs. And again now, it is true that contacts are increasing, but that has everything to do with people meeting at work, almost nothing to do with increased socialising.

The same goes for whether people self-isolate or not. Whereas compliance in other areas has been and remains generally high, compliance with self-isolation is low because self-isolation is difficult to achieve if you lack funds, live in crowded housing or have caring responsibilities. The issue here is not motivation, it is the availability of the means on which action depends.

The third lesson is that, when it comes to psychology, government thinking and policy has been dominated by the wrong approach. This was exemplified by the notion of ‘behavioural fatigue’ which was used, right at the start, as a reason for delaying lockdown (and therefore probably cost tens of thousands of lives).

The argument was that people lack the insight and the will to cope with restrictions for any length of time and therefore it would be counter-productive to impose them too soon. This is but one instance of a broader conception of people as ‘fragile rationalists’ who, in the best of times, are incapable of dealing with complex or uncertain information and, in a crisis, become entirely irrational. The public are seen as the main problem in the pandemic. They cannot be reasoned with, rather they are to be blamed, to be managed, to be threatened with punishments in order to shepherd them in the right direction.

Such an approach was almost immediately proved wrong. The public showed remarkable levels of adherence to tough measures even though some half of them were suffering considerably. This resilience derived from an emergent sense of common fate and of community brought about by the common threat posed by Covid-19. People could rely on others because they saw others as ‘us’ rather than ‘them’.

In other words, the pandemic brought home what has long been known by those who study disasters and crises. One cannot understand human understanding and behaviour as simply a matter of the strengths and weaknesses of human cognition. One must pay attention to the centrality of human relationships and of trust in determining who we listen to, who we believe, how we see our world and what we do about it.

Indeed, the government’s failure to understand this has led them to behave in ways that squandered the trust of the public and hence their ability to guide us. If you see people as a problem, if in your words and your actions you treat the public as ‘other’, then they will come to position you in the same manner.

The pandemic has created both a massive opportunity and a massive problem for psychologists. We have become relevant to societal debates in a way that I have never seen before. At the same time, unless we acknowledge the limits of our contribution and we rethink the nature of our contribution, we are in danger of ending up perpetually on the wrong side of these debates.

Stephen Reicher is bishop wardlaw professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours