Applying the latest science and evidence from behavioral economics in crafting COVID-19 posters

2 August 2020

10-minute read for national and local government officials, legislators, company decision-makers, non-governmental organizations, development agencies and problem-solvers

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The science behind our prototype

Public behavior change is one of the domains that will be key to our success in fighting COVID-19 and mitigating its effects. Since the lockdown, we have witnessed a dramatic change in the way Filipinos live, behave and do things. These behavioral changes range from macro trends like increased remote work setup and reduced mobility among the public, to micro behaviors such as social distancing and hand washing habits. Attention to these behavioral trends will be a game-changer in our fight against the virus.

To demonstrate the science of human behavior in action, we apply behavioral insights in crafting COVID-19 posters. Our main objectives are to (1) increase ability to remember key messages, (2) increase positive perception towards posters, and (3) improve compliance to public health guidelines on wearing a face mask and maintaining social distancing.

In conceptualizing these posters, we define our target geographical parameter as busy public spaces with fast-moving crowds. These include MRT/LRT stations, jeepney terminals, public markets, convenience stores, supermarkets, and bus stops, among others. Given this context, we have to make sure that our poster can be read quickly through reduced cognitive load, and prompt an automatic reaction to maintain social distancing and affirm the intention to wear a face mask.

First, we emphasize altruistic nature1 of complying to health guidelines and collective action as social norm messaging “para sa pamilya, kapwa Pilipino at bayan”. Cheng, Lam and Leung (2020) posit that the use of masks “shifts the focus from self-protection to altruism, actively involves every citizen, and is a symbol of social solidarity in the global response to the pandemic”2. We agree with this prognosis, especially for a country like the Philippines where the role of family, community and the nation is central. Examining the role of social identity processes in mass emergency, Durry (2018) posits that through salient shared social identity, crowds act in solidarity as “conduits for shared emotions, cognitions, and behaviors”3. Social norms have a strong effect on human behavior as they define what is socially acceptable. People derive signals from those around them to inform behavior, which has strong automatic effect on behavior4.

There is also range of preliminary studies across various countries showing how prosocial messaging relates to higher intention to comply with public health guidelines. Noting that their scientific work is still preliminary and requires peer review, a recent study by Everett et al (2020)5 titled “The effectiveness of moral messages on public health behavioral intentions during the COVID-19 pandemic” in the United States show that social norm messaging that focus on duties and responsibilities towards family, friends and fellow citizens strongly shaped public health intentions and beliefs. Another study by Jordan et al (2020)6 shows that “perceived public threat of coronavirus was more strongly associated with prevention intentions than the perceived personal threat”. In their study, pro-public messaging was framed as: “[C]oronavirus is a serious threat to your community. It is recommended that you take this threat very seriously to prevent spreading COVID-19 and causing people in your community to get very ill or die. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to keep your community safe”. In another working paper undertaken by Lunn et al (2020) in Ireland7, they posit that “the thought of infecting vulnerable people or large numbers of people can motivate social distancing”. This insight has implications on communications strategies and messaging.

Second, we leverage affect heuristic using relatable faces and appropriate color scale. Affect heuristic is a powerful cognitive bias which pertains to an appeal to emotion, highlighting the effect of emotional associations in decision-making. “Emotional responses to words, images and events can be rapid and automatic, so that people can experience a behavioural reaction before they realize what they are reacting to”8. We also apply salience by introducing bright colors and catchy design to prompt attention given our target location.

Third, we keep it simple. People are bombarded with thousands of stimuli every day. The EAST Framework9 from the UK’s Behavioral Insights Team provides an approach to encourage behavior, highlighting the need to make it easy, attractive, social and timely. Simplifying the message could lead to better uptake of the message and significant increase in behavioral change. In their assessment of COVID-19 posters10, the UK's BIT put emphasis on keeping it simple: reducing cognitive load, putting the action at the top, giving precise advice, and shortening it. They also leveraged behavioral insights in incorporating the following principles: use images and graphics, encourage social commitment, and emphasize altruism.

With enough support and resources, we hope to be able to implement a full online or field experiment to empirically validate our hypothesis about how Filipinos react to our poster prototypes and be able to iterate the process. This includes measuring responses alongside the main objectives: increase ability to remember key messages, increase positive perception towards posters, and improve compliance to public health guidelines.

1Rushton, J. P. (1984). The altruistic personality. In Development and maintenance of prosocial behavior (pp. 271-290). Boston, MA: Springer. 2 Cheng, K. K., Lam, T. H., & Leung, C. C., 2020. Wearing face masks in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic: altruism and solidarity. The Lancet. Accessed from DOI: 3 Drury, J., 2018. The role of social identity processes in mass emergency behavior: an integrative review. European Review of Social Psychology 29, 38–81. 4, 8 Dolan, P., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., King, D., Vlaev, I., 2010. Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy. The Institute for Government and Cabinet Office, London.
5Everett, J.A.C., Colombatto, C., Chituc, V., Brady, W.J., Crockett, M., 2020. The effectiveness of moral messages on public health behavioral intentions during the COVID-19 pandemic [WWW Document]. PsyArXiv. doi:10.31234/ 6Jordan, J., Yoeli, E. and Rand, D. G., 2020. Don’t Get It or Don’t Spread It? Comparing Self-interested Versus Prosocial Motivations for COVID-19 Prevention Behaviors [WWW Document]. PsyArXiv. doi:10.31234/ 7Lunn, P.D., Timmons, S., Beltona, C. A., Barjakováa, M., Juliennea H. & Lavin, C., 2020. Motivating social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic: An online experiment. Economic and Social Research Institute, Working Paper No. 658. Dublin, Ireland. Available at <>. 9 Service, O., et al. April 8 2020. EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. Available at <> The Behavioral Insights Team. Accessed: 17 July 2020. 10 The Behavioral Insights Team, 30 April 2020. Webinar: Applying behavioural insights to COVID-19 comms. Available at <>. Accessed: 3 August 2020.