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The Best Tactics for Convincing People to Stop the Spread

Part 1: How do you convince people to take precautions against COVID-19?

TheDigitalArtist courtesy pixabay | CC0 License
Source: TheDigitalArtist courtesy pixabay | CC0 License

Over the past several weeks, alarm regarding the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has greatly increased, along with efforts to stop the spread. Government agencies, community leaders, and lawmakers have been urging people to take precautions to slow the spread of the disease by socially distancing themselves from others and taking great care to practice good hygiene. For those leaders and laypeople who want to convince others to comply with this recommendations, what can they do? Research in social psychology suggests there are several issues to consider. This first of a two-part series on this topic will deal primarily with the effectiveness of different persuasion tactics.

Should we scare people?

The answer is complicated. Fear can be a motivator. When people are feeling anxious, they tend to process information more carefully and pay more attention to the messages they're hearing. So a message that evokes fear makes the audience more open to persuasion. However, it's important that any attempt to increase fear is accompanied by clear direction about how to avoid the scary thing. For example, one study found that people were more persuaded by a fear-inducing article on climate change when it contained information about solutions to the problem. Without that reassurance, people may panic and actually tune out the message when they think they can't control the situation. When people feel that they have no control over the feared outcome, these messages can potentially backfire. This can be a delicate line to walk. It is important that leaders express the gravity of the situation, but instill confidence in people that they can avoid a worst-case scenario by following certain protocols to prevent the spread of the disease.

Should communicators come on strong?

This is another area where the answer is complicated. Strong and consistent messaging is important to get the word out and create an impression that there is consensus about the advice. However, coming on too strong has the potential to backfire. If you tell a child that she can have any candy she wants, except the blue one, she'll want the blue one. This phenomenon is called reactance. Reactance is when we perceive that someone or something is threatening our freedom to do what we want, and we respond to that threatened freedom by doubling down.

This kind of reactance may be a real danger in how we deal with the COVID-19 crisis. News outlets have reported that when officials announce restrictions (like closing bars), people respond by gathering en masse. Tell people they won't be able to party anymore, and they respond with a really strong urge to party. In my home state of Pennsylvania, the governor announced that starting at the end of the day on March 16, all liquor stores would close indefinitely (in PA, all liquor stores are state-run). I must confess that like many people, I felt the sudden need to stock up, but didn't get to the store until about 10 minutes before closing on Sunday evening. It was quite sleepy at that point, but a cashier told me that the store had been so crowded following the governor's announcement that they were way over capacity with 150 people in the store at a time. I'd imagine that this kind of behavior is quite widespread. And it ironically leads to mass gatherings of people, just the opposite of what public health officials are recommending.

Another important issue when you're trying to persuade someone to do something is that you must consider your audience's initial position. No matter what you're trying to convince someone to do, you can't take a position that's too far from the audience's starting point. For example, you can't convince someone who eats meat three times a day to go vegan overnight; you have to start small by convincing them of the benefits of cutting down a little on meat. If your stance is too extreme, they won't listen. So if you're trying to convince a friend or family member to be more cautious about their hygiene and social distancing behavior, consider where they're starting from and aim your appeal just beyond that.

Convincing people to take precautions against COVID-19 is no easy matter. It's a delicate balance of instilling fear, but providing solutions to avoid the feared outcome; of sending a strong message, but not coming on so strong that people respond with defiance.

In the second post in this series, I deal with who can be persuasive in this context.

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