How to motivate people to follow health recommendations
In order to slow the transmission of COVID-19, people have been asked to socially distance. The approaches taken by governments, schools, businesses, etc., have been very different. For example, slogans range from “Stay apart is the best way to stay united” to “Don’t kill someone accidentally.”
Individuals have a choice whether or not to follow health recommendations, such as social distancing. Thus, understanding how best to motivate individuals has become a key public health priority. This led a group of researchers (including myself) to examine which communication strategies would most effectively motivate people. The researchers involved in the study are part of an extensive cross-cultural collaborative network called the Psychological Science Accelerator.
The study “A global experiment on motivating social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemicled by Thuy-vy Nguyen and Nicole Legate was published this month in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. It focused on examining messages that encouraged personal action and thoughtful choices (i.e. an empowerment message) or were restrictive and shameful (i.e. a control message) versus no message at all.
Specifically, the study recruited over 25,000 people from 89 countries. After random assignment, participants saw an autonomy support message, a control message, or no message.
Source: Tim Mossholder / Pexels
Excerpts from the self-reliance support message included “You can support global efforts to curb the transmission of COVID-19 by choosing to stay home” and “It’s about finding your own way to ensure that social distancing works for you, whether it’s finding uncrowded spaces from outside, carefully navigating public spaces keeping a distance between yourself and others, or finding ways to bring entertainment back to life. home rather than looking for it outside.
On the other hand, the control message included language such as “If you don’t stay at home, it really shows that you don’t care about the health of others” and “If you want to maintain your social life, you should stay connected through social media, chat and video. Don’t be irresponsible and don’t put others at risk.
After viewing the messages, participants completed a measure of their motivation to follow social distancing recommendations. The results indicated that the control and pressure message increased controlled motivation to follow recommendations through guilt and fear of social punishment. While the self-reliance support message that promoted agency and ownership reduced feelings of defiance. Additionally, compared to the control message, the autonomy support message increased the internalization of the value of social distancing.
In conclusion, in a public health context, messages supporting autonomy have certain advantages over messages controlling motivation and feelings of challenge. These findings may have similar applications for other behavioral public health recommendations, including mask wearing, hand washing, post-exposure self-quarantine, and vaccination, for which evidence of challenge has also been observed.
This study may therefore help advance research and future applications of evidence-based health communication globally for the current COVID-19 pandemic and for future public health crises.