Who Can Best Convince People to Stop the Spread?

Part 2: How do you convince people to take precautions against COVID-19?

Posted Mar 19, 2020

 TheDigitalArtist courtesy Pixabay | CC0 License
Source: TheDigitalArtist courtesy Pixabay | CC0 License

Public health officials have rolled out increasingly stringent guidelines and recommendations for preventing the spread of the disease. In my first post of this series, I discussed how persuasive specific tactics might be. In this post, I will discuss who influences us.

Who is most likely to be influential?

Not all messengers are created equal: Some people are more persuasive than others. Not surprisingly, research shows that the most persuasive people are likable, trustworthy, and expert.

When it comes to recommendations about the coronavirus, the public is frequently hearing from doctors and public health experts. It's important that these individuals continue to communicate directly with the public because they are the experts. However, there are some limits to the effects of expertise. If the target of the message is very opposed to it, they are likely to scrutinize the expert's message for flaws, and there is the risk of heightened resistance to the message, as I discussed in the first part of this series.

In the case of communications about COVID-19, doctors are the resident experts. Doctors themselves generally tend to be trusted, but about half of Americans report relatively low trust in doctors. Interestingly, research shows that Americans tend to like their own doctors, but have less positive views of the medical profession as a whole. This suggests that it is important for doctors, as much as they can, to communicate with their own patients during this crisis. This may be especially true in this context, given that expert advice may receive particular scrutiny from skeptical audiences. Hearing the information from a doctor they personally trust may have more sway than when it comes from an unknown doctor, even one that has more expertise than their own doctor.

We have the power to convince our peers with our actions.

As much as some people pride themselves on their individuality, we're all subject to social influences. And that's not necessarily a bad thing – In a well-functioning society, people need to follow certain norms. And once we find out that everyone else is doing something, we feel the need to go along with it too. Robert Cialdini coined the term "social proof" to refer to our tendency to look to other people to determine what to do. Just giving people the impression that most people are doing something will make them more likely to do it. In fact, we're especially likely to look to others when we're not sure what to do ourselves. So in these uncertain times, we're especially likely to consider what other people are doing when we decide what we should do. This could be a good thing if we can influence each other to exercise caution and slow down the spread of the coronavirus. Of course, we have also seen the downside of this kind of herd mentality as people unnecessarily hoard paper products and create shortages.

Within our own social groups, some people are more influential than others, particularly those in the group who are high status. As higher status members of a group take steps to curb the spread of the virus, others follow. In my own world of higher education, you can see this pattern unfolding with colleges' and universities' decisions to close their campuses and move classes online. Some of the first universities to close in the Northeast were Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton – all members of the Ivy League, some of the most prestigious universities in the country. If a smaller or less important college was the first to take that kind of preventative measure, people would likely not take that school very seriously. And other colleges and universities would be unlikely to follow their lead. But when Harvard does something, other institutions listen. 

Gwendolyn Seidman
A message on a store window in the author's hometown
Source: Gwendolyn Seidman

We can also invoke certain types of norms to encourage cooperation. Many people who are young and healthy may determine that their own risk of becoming seriously ill due to COVID-19 is low. But that doesn't mean that they can't spread the disease to others. So it is important that those who are at low risk themselves consider the welfare of others. We actually do have altruistic social norms that encourage social responsibility and fairness. Even if you're not in a high-risk group, it's important to try to slow the spread to others, and most of us do have a sense of responsibility toward other people and a sense that we should help those who need help, and protect vulnerable people. So you need to find a way to appeal to people's generous and cooperative side. I saw this message plastered on the windows of a local business: "Please stay home. Think of others, Buy gift cards." It is important now that we remind everyone to consider how their behavior might affect the spread of the disease and how this may affect other people.

We do have the power to influence each other to slow the spread of coronavirus. While doctors and other experts may have the widest reach as individuals, we can all model altruistic behavior and remind each other to think of others.