The Leaders’ Report 2021: Key Findings – Behaviours Changing

Almost every decision we make now comes with a new calculus: how do we minimise the risk of contracting or spreading Covid-19? Research suggests it takes 66 days to truly form a new behaviour. If that’s the case, then the pandemic gave us plenty of time to make significant changes to our routines, beliefs and attitudes.

The restrictions on our daily lives created entirely new behaviours (who, after all, previously spent 20 seconds washing their hands multiple times a day?) and accelerated others (the explosion in e-commerce and the wider adoption of online digital services, for example).

Despite ongoing concerns around mental wellbeing, the majority of people proved to be remarkably resilient and adaptable during the crisis. Many leaned in – if not entirely enthusiastically then at least semi-willingly – to some of the changes forced upon them. This flexibility led to a significant uptake in forms of online public services such as telemedicine (which looks likely to permanently alter how we engage with doctors and access healthcare).

The speed at which many services reoriented to socially-distanced patterns of behaviour increased public confidence in the availability and delivery of digital forms of support, and may also lead to a period of sustained development and innovation in how public, private and voluntary services are provided. However, as we identified in The Leaders’ Report, having experienced a period of breakneck transformation, citizens may want to pull back from the pace of technical change they face. Service providers will need to assess just how far and how fast the public is willing to embrace new models of delivery.

All behaviours have strong time and location dependencies that can influence the design and delivery of communications. As physical movements were restricted, citizens migrated to virtual worlds. This made it easier for governments to map behaviours in greater detail, but it also made it easier for citizens to access new influences and listen to new voices. Governments need to be aware of who and how persuasive these influencers are.

Thinking fast and slow and fast again

In behavioural terms, governments quickly and successfully shifted citizens from System 1 (fast and subconscious) thinking to System 2 (slow and conscious) thinking, particularly around issues such as social distancing, mask wearing and hand hygiene. What was previously unconscious behaviour needed urgently to be made conscious to limit the spread of the virus.

It’s unlikely the world will completely conquer Covid-19 any time soon, so these health-related behaviours need to be embedded and become habits for the longer term. That requires a shift back to System 1 thinking – a much stiffer task for behaviouralists and communicators. It also requires a shift away from rational behaviour change techniques such as social norming and cost/benefit analysis, to more emotional ones such as habit, morality and heuristic framing.

Straining against constraints

One of the big surprises of the pandemic was the degree to which restrictions on personal freedoms were adhered to. Publics around the world were willing to give up specific liberties for the good of others. Generally, government communication campaigns were able to eschew the use of shock and fear in favour of more direct, positive, and emotionally-centred messaging.

The degree of compliance shifted over the course of the pandemic, as the cohesion brought on by a shared experience of the crisis dissipated. There is emerging evidence that listening fatigue is now setting in. Having tired of conforming, citizens are straining against continuing constraints, and tuning out repetitive government messages.

Confirming existing biases

Humans have always coalesced into groups. In private and semi-private clusters across the web, there are people proactively sharing fake content — be it an anti-immigration group, or a conspiracy thread about vaccines. The scale is hard to track, given their very nature — but they’re sizeable, self-sustaining and on the rise.

The pandemic encouraged herd mentalities to develop at pace, making some people more resistant than normal to reason. That’s because in behavioural terms, we witnessed an increase in:

  • Moral inertia: a reluctance to take action due to the scale of the pandemic (“why should I be the only one to challenge people not wearing masks when it’s everyone’s responsibility?”)
  • Motivated reasoning: not wanting to consider anything outside of our own existing values system (“I didn’t vote for this government so obviously they are going to handle the pandemic badly”)
  • Confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret new evidence as validating our own existing beliefs (“I believe the pandemic is a hoax so I’m only going to read articles that confirm this for me”).

These instincts and biases combined to make many citizens less sympathetic to and less understanding of others as the pandemic continued, and more likely to make excuses for their own bad behaviour.

Helping out or hindering?

In a time of helplessness, how can we best help others? At the start of the crisis, sharing advice and information appeared to be the natural response. After all, everyone was faced with a novel and unexpected set of circumstances.

While primarily well intentioned, a lack of experience of living through a pandemic, combined with a lack of media literacy, led to misinformation being shared rapidly and at scale. This was understandable but perhaps not sufficiently anticipated, according to Blue State Digital’s London strategy director, Reece Jackson. “Holed up at home and refreshing Google results every hour”, people were desperate to share any sense of hope and substantiation they came across. In the end, citizens were more effective at isolating themselves from the virus, than from potentially-dangerous information, which they spread extensively.

This is important because Blue State Digital research suggests that fake news travels six times faster online than truth — and it’s in the sharing and spreading of fake news that it acquires its power. Multiple social media platforms are now breeding grounds for disinformation. For posts that have high engagement — a mainstream news article, for example — algorithms put the most interacted-with comments at the top of a comment thread, making disinformation potentially even more visible.

Disclosing data and details

Covid-19 accelerated the sharing of personal data by telecoms and tech companies as governments sought shared location data to help track the virus’ spread. New devices and apps were created to collect movement data, share advice and nudge the public in real time (think of the track, trace and test apps launched, with variable success, in many countries).

WPP’s research for the Data 2030 report suggests that the majority of individuals now feel duty bound or even compelled to share (anonymised and aggregated) personal data to support healthcare providers and social and economic policy. But beware the backlash: trust in government is lower than during the early days of the pandemic and citizens are experiencing increasing inner conflict between continuing to do the right thing (like maintaining social distance) and addressing their perceived loss of personal autonomy (being constrained in their movements).

Implications for government communication

While there may be a gradual and at least partial resumption of many pre-crisis behaviours over the course of the next year, we don’t yet know which ones. Citizen behaviours will continue to be volatile.

Some behaviours will permanently shift because of the time people have had to get used to new patterns and because new products and services continue to evolve to meet their changing needs. Governments will need to track these.

Governments face the challenge of continuing to develop behaviour change communications while relevant behaviours and values remain in a state of flux. Citizens are weary of the on-going requirements of them. As we enter a period of ‘listening fatigue’, governments may struggle to keep messaging sufficiently innovative and engaging to modify the required behaviours.

People missed out on many of life’s most important moments. They lost the real-world experience, when making decisions for example, of getting help and advice from others. Will a hunger for the human touch that Zoom meetings and e-commerce lack lead us to a new ‘Roaring 20s’ where people relentlessly seek out social interaction?

Ogilvy Consulting’s Brands in Motion research noted that citizens now know everything from contactless shopping to telemedicine will require a host of new data trade-offs. They have mixed feelings about this to say the least. Post pandemic, people’s privacy concerns are likely to grow as more information about them is collected to track and trace movement, and to stop the next epidemic. Citizens, Wunderman Thompson note, “have drawn a line in the sand on what information they are and aren’t comfortable being collected and shared about them… and it’s not related to data identifying the individual, but rather how personal and intimate the information is”. How much longer will it be tenable, for example, for governments to track the shops and hospitality venues that citizens visit?

Crowdsourcing support to combat Covid-19, global

Relying on the resources of government and government communicators was often insufficient to reach the full range of social groups affected by Covid-19, and there were concerns that repeating the same message month after month would leave citizens bored and tuning out of important information. Recognising this, governments and civil-society organisations in several countries created simple briefs around the pandemic’s biggest problems and set out to crowdsource the answers.

In the UK, for example, the Wash Hands Poster Generator enabled citizens to create their own unique hand-washing poster by inputting the name and singer of their favourite song. In Africa, UNESCO and i4Policy launched the #Don’tGoViral campaign to crowdsource, through artists and cultural entrepreneurs, culturally-relevant and openly-licenced information in local African languages that raised awareness of how communities could protect themselves against the virus.

In Afghanistan, health authorities enlisted religious leaders to instruct people to stay at home on loudspeakers following the adhan call to prayer, when everyone was already listening. And in Vietnam, the Ministry of Health used TikTok to crowdsource dance videos where all the hand movements mimicked the World Health Organization’s recommended handwashing actions.

Next: Key Findings – Trends Fluctuating 

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