• Georgia Carr, Author |
5 min read

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues so does the plea for citizens to continue to take action to mitigate the spread. The power is in the people’s (hopefully clean) hands and so their perception of the risks are important. A public who under-value the risk of the spread will take little action to contain it, exacerbating the problem, while a public who live in constant panic is useful to no-one. While the media will have a role in building the public perception, it is the government’s job to ensure their population is informed and have a sound understanding of the risk to them, their loved ones, and to society.

A mass of research from the field of behavioural science finds that when trying to decipher the risk involved in a situation, we unconsciously use cognitive shortcuts (heuristics) to ease our information processing and decision making. A government communication strategy should keep these in mind, to ensure both the intended message and sentiment are received, in the most effective manner. While the context of a global pandemic is the perfect setting for such a discussion, these tips and insights are relevant to any communication in a time of panic or otherwise.

1. Framing: Not all statements are created equal

You might imagine there is only one way to perceive a probability or percentage but behavioural scientists have found that the framing of facts is crucial. For example, despite the identical meaning of: ‘2% mortality rate’ and ‘98% survival rate’, the framing of the statistic may produce different reactions in the reader (Lunn et al., 2020). Research finds that an individual is more likely to take action when the positive is framed (Tversky & Kahneman, 1979). An example of this could be using the language ‘staying indoors will reduce the outbreak’ versus ‘going outside will increase the outbreak’. While the sentiment is the same, the subtlety in how individuals receive the message could be the difference between people abiding by the rules (or not). A conscious choice should be made here by the content creator of how to frame the message in the most appropriate way (Gigerenzer, 2014).

2. The Availability Heuristic: If Boris Johnson, Prince Charles and Tom Hanks can catch it then I certainly can

Research finds that rather than relying on statistics, people unconsciously believe that the first outcome which can come to mind is the most likely option. This heuristic is termed the availability heuristic and means that the more we hear about a situation from friends, the news or social media, the more we mentally believe it will happen again (Kahneman, 2011). Famous examples of this bias include the notion that people are more concerned about their plane crashing than their car: despite a conscious understanding of the probabilities, unforgettable news articles of plane crashes override. In the case of the Coronavirus, stories of severe symptoms, infected celebrities and fatalities of both young and old individuals will greatly increase the perceived risk to the population (Lunn et al., 2020). A strategy by the government to try to enact a response from the public could include reinforcing memorable cases to increase the perceived threat to the individual and, with it, their desire to act.

3. Social norms: If everyone else is doing it, why shouldn’t I?

A pitfall to side-step in the communication of risk is the act of reinforcing problematic behaviour. Highlighting the high prevalence of a behaviour has been known to further increase its popularity. Therefore it is important we highlight the right behaviours. The power of social norms has enabled the government to decrease littering, increase NHS appointment attendance, the payment of parking fines and taxes just by highlighting the behaviour that most citizens adhere to (BIT, 2014; Halpern, 2015). Media and news alerting the public that people are stockpiling, and disobeying orders to stay indoors could be having the undue effect of increasing said behaviour. Linking back to our availability heuristic, the image of groups continuing to meet-up, despite guidelines, may be a further prompt toward ‘herd behaviour’. The government should prioritise highlighting the mass of cooperative citizens, letting our bias for following social norms nudge us towards complying.

4. Emotional pleas: Pulling on those heartstrings

While it probably won’t be news to you that your emotions play a big role in your decision making, behavioural scientists have found that this effect may be greater than you think. The affect heuristic describes the ‘shortcut’ whereby a decision which holds emotional significance will be made more rapidly, using a gut instinct about the situation rather than conscious thought or judgement (Slovic et al., 2007). The identifiable victim effect finds this heuristic is exacerbated when articles and stories focus in on one suffering individual rather than a group (Jenni & Loewenstein, 1997). In a campaign attempting to evoke a response, utilising the affect heuristic and zooming in to the trauma of a single person’s story is a smart way to ensure the audience feel the gravity of the situation, and act based on this.

5. Keep it simple: To prevent the outbreak of boredom

Lastly, our brains do not have the capacity to process large volumes of information, so be sure that the information that does stick, is the most important. Research finds that the most memorable and effective messaging is clear, concise and catchy (BIT, 2014). All UK residents have received a text and now letter from the government with the line ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’. This is a textbook example of communication which can generate a clear and lasting impression on the reader. The use of the rule of three helps to deliver impact and the personal feel to receiving a text and letter puts pressure on you as the individual to act. In any communication, avoid excessive accompanying text: the informative nature is easily displaced by boredom and information overload. This is something to keep in mind the next time you have to send a work email. Is the takeaway clear? Is there a more creative and memorable way to express the message?

While we remain in uncertain and worrying times, it is important that government messaging is clear, informative and invokes the right behaviours from the public. By understanding the behavioural science behind how people assess and act on risk, we can all be more precise in our communication.


  • The Behavioural Insights teams. (2014). EAST. Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights.
  • Gigerenzer, G., 2014. Should patients listen to how doctors frame messages?. BMJ, 349, p.g7091.
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  • Jenni, K & Loewenstein, G.(1997). Explaining the Identifiable Victim Effect.
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