COVID-19 and Applied Behavioral Science Ethics

Has the pandemic hastened a need for professional ethics in behavioral science?

Posted Sep 15, 2020

The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound and transformative effect on many aspects of life. The crisis has also dramatically highlighted ethical challenges not only as they apply to government policies, but also the conduct of corporations and professionals in different industries. This includes the unregulated field of applied behavioral science.

Salient Ethics

The coronavirus pandemic has confronted us with a range of ethical problems. Many of these relate to justice, especially distributive justice (the socially just allocation of resources). Here are some notable examples:

Other problems related to fairness have included workers falling through the cracks of government support schemes, officials who flaunt lockdown rules, and consumers who panic-buy without regard for other people. On the positive side, a sense of fairness and solidarity also explains compliance with rules and other pro-social behaviors.

Aside from justice and fairness, privacy may arguably be the next largest ethical concern that arose in the pandemic. This relates mainly to contact tracing practices and technologies, one of the pandemic’s most central areas for behavioral scientists.

High Stakes

Numerous facets of behavioral science have been relevant to the pandemic, including risk perception, habit formation, and social norms, to name just a few. Behavioral scientists have worked to understand better key behaviors and influence policies around social distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing. The global ethical challenges associated with COVID-19 illustrate the high stakes that come with work in the context of a deadly virus. This is of particular concern to behavioral science policies that influence its contraction and spread. Ethical RCTs, for example, should use methodologies where both control and treatment groups experience the costs and benefits of an intervention at some point in the process.

Shifting Focus

COVID-19 has also been predicted to have a lasting effect outside of public health, particularly the economy; for some households, this means unemployment or even poverty, and many will struggle to make ends meet. Regardless of the severity of the impact, these developments are likely to reinforce the importance of behavioral science applied to domains like financial decision-making or mental health. The nature of work has also been changing, as working flexibly and virtually has become the norm for many. Behavioral science may be called upon to help us understand and improve work processes and performance. Research on virtual work in an increasingly digital world will bring ethical worries to the fore, particularly in relation to privacy.


Due to the high stakes associated with COVID-19, the role of behavioral interventions has arguably been overshadowed by the importance of government mandates. A deadly pandemic may not be the best context for a soft approach to make its mark.

In the U.K., applied behavioral science ethics entered the public’s consciousness with a bang at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. At the time, it appeared that the U.K. government was using the idea of "herd immunity" and the poorly understood concept of "behavioral fatigue" as justifications for a delayed lockdown. An open letter signed by many of the country’s behavioral scientists followed, expressing their unease with policies based on limited evidence—a challenge that has permeated many aspects of policymaking during this unprecedented predicament.

The high stakes of the pandemic and the "behavioral fatigue" incident illustrate the important ethical implications of behavioral policies, as they may have led to soul-searching among behavioral scientists about the state, impact, and future of their discipline. But the crisis has also opened up opportunities to understand human behavior better. Moreover, it has underscored the importance of inter-disciplinary cooperation and an ability to operate in an uncertain environment.

The Future

The application of behavioral science insights has become a popular practice to solve problems in both the public and the private sector. At the same time, behavioral science practices like nudging have become one of the most hotly debated topics in the academic literature on ethics in the last decade. The main worries in this debate relate to nudgers’ intentions, the nudged’s autonomy, and possible unintended consequences of nudges.

Yet, the applied behavioral science industry remains largely unregulated, and practitioners often rely on their own intuition and experience to address ethical challenges. There’s now a clear need for standards and ethical guidelines in applied behavioral science. The COVID-19 crisis has arguably only hastened this need. Responding to this sooner rather than later will allow the industry to emerge stronger from the coronavirus pandemic.