All in this together: why it’s important to avoid blaming the public for outbreaks

By David Donaldson

Wednesday February 3, 2021


You wouldn’t roll out a vaccine without testing it first, and behavioural interventions should be no different. Professors Steve Reicher and David Halpern recently reflected on the pandemic’s lessons for government.

The challenges of the pandemic have at times led to governments blaming the people they serve for not following the rules.

In July last year, for example, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews expressed frustration that more than half of Victorians who had been tested for coronavirus were not isolating, warning that a “dramatic improvement” was needed to avoid an extended lockdown.

Insights & analysis that matter to you

Subscribe for only $5 a week


“This is an unacceptable number,” Andrews said at the time.

It eventually turned out that the majority of these people had not done the wrong thing, but had failed to answer the door when authorities came knocking, whether because they were isolating at a different location, had gone to see a doctor, or just happened to be in the shower.

It’s not surprising the premier was frustrated that citizens did not appear to be taking the pandemic seriously, and this feeling was no doubt echoed by many Victorians.

But governments blaming the public can be counter-productive, says Steve Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews.

“I would say treat the public as the solution not the problem, treat them as a partner, not as naughty schoolchildren to be castigated and to be threatened,” Reicher told the UK Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee last month.

Indeed, the pandemic has shown that citizens can be trusted. While it was expected early on that the public would be the “weak link” in the response, they have in fact been the “strong link”, Reicher believes.

There are strong behavioural science justifications for not blaming the public, too.

Doing so communicates to many people that there’s no point in trying to do the right thing.

“If you say to people, ‘everyone is doing this, stop it’, what they hear is ‘everybody’s doing it’. That begins to suggest that it’s a norm of behaviour, and people begin to think that if everyone’s doing it, why shouldn’t I do it? So it’s unhelpful.”

While it is important to “emphasise egregious cases and enforce”, dwelling too much on bad behaviour can easily make things seem worse than they are, says Professor David Halpern, chief executive of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team.

We are more likely to notice a few hundred people partying on the beach than millions sitting at home doing the right thing. This tendency is exacerbated by the media — after all, ‘most people followed the rules today’ doesn’t sell papers.

“We tend to already systematically overestimate bad behaviour in other people,” Halpern told the committee.

Blaming the public also darkens the relationship between government and the people.

“Compliance with government, and with authority in general, is very much a matter of the social relationship between the public and government, whether we think of the authorities as ‘of us’ and acting for us,” says Reicher.

“If you begin to treat the public as the problem, as ‘other’, and start blaming them, you break that relationship, you break that relationship of trust, you undermine common cause, and you undermine compliance.”

The relationship between trust and compliance is complex, however. For example, the English are far less trusting of government than the Scots, but “the compliance figures aren’t that different”. How trust flows through to action depends on the situation.

“Many of the behaviours we can do independently of government, like socially distancing, washing our hands and so on, trust in government isn’t going to be that critical.

“When it comes to things like vaccines, it is going to be critical, because there you’ve got to believe the government telling you it’s safe, and you’re actually interacting with the government. So there are some areas where trust is critical.”

Enforce as a last resort

It has been reassuring to see sensible policing in the pandemic, with officers mostly taking the ‘four Es’ approach, adds Reicher.

The idea is to police with consent, and demonstrate that the authorities are acting in the interests of the public.

“The four Es say you first of all engage with people, you explain and you encourage, you only enforce long afterwards as a last resort,” he says.

“If you use enforcement as a first resort, especially in mild cases, the danger is you create an ‘us and them’ with the police and you create tension and even social disorder, which you’ve seen in other countries.”

So while certain sectors like to call for a tough approach — and firm enforcement is necessary in some situations — zero tolerance often ends up being counterproductive.

“If you start from the premise of goodwill and you have small words with people, that’s both very effective — it gets people to believe the police are on their side — and it makes compliance much better.”

Remove barriers to compliance

Governments should not assume non-compliance is a problem of psychology, Reicher argues.

“In the first [UK] lockdown there was evidence showing that 3-6 times more poor people, people from vulnerable backgrounds, were breaking lockdown than the more affluent. But it had nothing to do with motivation. Motivation to comply was exactly the same.”

Instead, “the main problem was practicality”. People need to buy food. They might worry they’ll be fired for not turning up to work. And even in a pandemic, dogs need to be walked. Addressing barriers to compliance can avoid unnecessary antagonism and protect public health.

Make messages clear and actionable

Messaging is another challenge — people need to understand what government wants them to do if they are to follow that advice. Reicher compared two of the messages communicated by the British government at different points in the pandemic:

“When we had the message ‘stay home’, 96% of people understood it. When it changed to ‘stay alert’, 31% of people understood it. It was very unclear — it wasn’t clear what it meant, it wasn’t clear what people were supposed to do with it.”

Explaining what Covid is has has also been fraught with misinterpretation.

“You make something unfamiliar familiar by linking it something you already know” — a process called anchoring — Reicher explains.

“The problem is if you anchor something in the wrong way you lead to a misunderstanding, and one of the great tragedies of this pandemic is anchoring Covid as flu and treating it as if it were flu, and that’s led I think to a lot of harm.”

Making Covid concrete can help people understand what it means. As Stalin famously said, one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. Whereas the daily case count can easily be abstracted into the language of statistics, an ad showing a 30 year old struggling to breathe sticks in the mind.

Be careful about how much data you communicate. Too many numbers can distract from the message you want to convey. Charity ads that provide data elicit fewer donations than photos of hungry children, for example. For many, statistics are just not engaging.

“Throwing stats at people just because you want to get them worried or something is not particularly effective,” says Halpern.

That said, giving people data which bears on their own behaviour in a consequential way “is highly effective”.

Halpern’s nudge unit ran a trial giving citizens personalised data through a government app about whether the number of cases in their area was high or low, as well as information about their own personal risk profile.

This made a “very large” difference to individuals’ decisions around social contact, he says.

Effectiveness is another key element of compliance.

“You need to show people the measures you’re implementing are effective, and many of the international studies show effectiveness is critical,” says Reicher.

“Many of the debates around lockdown for instance haven’t been about whether we should have measures, they’ve been about whether they’re effective or not.”

This is why people are often happier with stronger restrictions than half-measures in an outbreak — an experience many would have assumed unlikely before the pandemic.

“People aren’t stupid. We’ve seen that people can take the pain and have been prepared to put up with huge suffering and difficulties during the pandemic, but they won’t do it for nothing.”

About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective
public sector professionals