High-profile people must lead by example in pandemic

Public’s behaviour needs clear guidance and belief Covid-19 rules apply equally to all

The problem with clichés is that many of them are true. So while you may now roll your eyes if someone says “we’re in this together”, it does not alter the truth of the statement. The most essential fact about fighting this virus is that success depends on the behaviour of all of us, collectively.

Behavioural scientists have spent decades studying how people behave when they try to solve problems collectively. They have established key principles that have proved useful for understanding people’s response to this pandemic from the beginning.

Here is one principle: most of us will make sacrifices for the common good provided we can clearly see why and how what we are being asked to do is best for everybody. Here is another: we will make sacrifices for the common good over extended periods provided we see that others are committed to doing it too.

And one more: most of us will withdraw co-operation and actively protest if we see rules unfairly applied to us and not others. All three principles are backed by large volumes of scientific evidence.


A particular challenge is that any exceptions made to general rules require strong arguments as to why the exception applies

Now we can make some inferences about managing this ongoing crisis. First, it is not inevitable that people will simply tire of making the effort and give up. Second, if communication about what we are trying to achieve and how we achieve it is not clear, we will be less likely to do it. Third, if highly visible people do not pull their weight, the rest of us will make less effort. Fourth, if rules are bent for some groups more than others, public co-operation may diminish.

One might draw the dots to recent events, but there is surely no need.

The above logic seems simple and in many ways it is. But when it comes to the nitty gritty of designing public health guidelines to fight the virus, things get more complicated.

Perceived contradictions

Take the claim that it is contradictory to allow only six people at indoor social events but far more children in a classroom. To someone who now needs to cancel a planned event, that might seem unfair. Similarly, parents and teachers may wonder why more people are permitted in a classroom than a function room. Official communication has to explain why it makes sense and is in all our interests.

That means we have to be honest and strongly communicate the purpose of the guidelines. They do not tell us what is and is not safe – all social interaction involves risk. Rather, the guidelines are decisions about what risks we are willing to accept in pursuit of our goal of getting infections back down. If we take higher risks in some areas, then to keep the virus under control we must take lower risks in others.

Following the high-profile rule-breaking, mixed messages and special pleading, the conversation must return to how we can all help each other

So it is not contradictory to take higher risk to get schools open than to hold social events. It is a sensible decision if society thinks that reopening schools is a bigger priority than holding social events. Economic and Social Research Institute research suggests most people in Ireland agree with this.

Fairness to children is the very reason we should pull together by sticking to smaller social gatherings, so we can try to get infection rates back down yet still reopen our schools. That is the logic that needs to land.

Such messages are more complex than the simple rules employed earlier in the pandemic, but getting them across is vital to the overall response. A particular challenge is that any exceptions made to general rules require strong arguments as to why the exception applies. If it looks like the authorities are giving undue weight to politically connected special interests, people will rightly perceive unfairness and co-operation will decline. This is not politics as usual.

Adoption of masks

We can maintain co-operation and compliance if the logic behind the guidelines is straightforwardly articulated. We can even obtain consensus and increase it. The story of wearing masks demonstrates this.

After initial uncertainty about the benefits, once it was agreed and explained how and why they were important, the large majority switched from not wearing them to wearing them in a matter of weeks. Most of this behavioural change preceded enforcement measures and took place while case numbers were falling.

The media will always highlight non-compliance, especially outrageous non-compliance. But we need also to keep acknowledging the extraordinary efforts most people are making. Fighting this virus by adapting our behaviour for an extended period is daunting and tiresome, but less so when we see our fellow citizens and leaders front up.

Some behavioural science can help here too. It is possible to embed long-term habits that reduce feelings of sacrifice and imposition. At one time people viewed wearing seat belts and brushing their teeth that way, now these are habitual.

Evidence shows that we need to continue to adapt physical spaces to make it as simple and easy as possible to prevent infection, and to lead by example in setting social standards. If we do this, good habits around handwashing, greetings, personal space and living more of our life outdoors need not inevitably wear off.

Following the high-profile rule-breaking, mixed messages and special pleading, the conversation must return to how we can all help each other. We need clearly communicated guidelines that we can collectively follow to get infections back down, designed to be as fair as possible by prioritising what is most important to us all. Meanwhile, we need to keep adapting our social and work environments, to support each other and reduce the pain.

Prof Pete Lunn, head of Behavioural Research Unit, ESRI; and Prof Liam Delaney, head of department of psychological and behavioural science, London School of Economics