Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How to Motivate People to Follow Health Recommendations

New research on how shaming and pressuring might do more harm than good.

Key points

  • A recent study examined health behavior motivation through messages that promote personal agency and reflective choices vs. shame.
  • The results indicated that the controlling, pressuring message increased controlled motivation to follow recommendations out of guilt and fear.
  • The autonomy-supportive message that promoted agency and ownership lowered feelings of defiance.

In order to slow the transmission of COVID-19, people have been asked to socially distance. The approaches taken by governments, schools, companies, etc., have been vastly different. For example, slogans have ranged from “Staying apart is the best way to stay united” to “Don’t accidentally kill someone.”

Individuals have some choice over whether or not they follow health recommendations, such as social distancing. Thus, understanding how to best motivate individuals has become a critical public health priority. This led a group of researchers (including myself) to examine which communication strategies would motivate people more effectively. The researchers involved in the study are part of a large cross-cultural collaborative network called the Psychological Science Accelerator.

The study “A Global Experiment on Motivating Social Distancing During the COVID-19 Pandemic” led by Thuy-vy Nguyen and Nicole Legate was published this month in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. It focused on examining messages that promoted personal agency and reflective choices (i.e., an autonomy-supportive message) or were restrictive and shaming (i.e., a controlling message) compared to no message at all.

More specifically, the study recruited over 25,000 people from 89 countries. Following random assignment, participants saw an autonomy-supportive message, a controlling message, or no message.

Tim Mossholder/ Pexels
Source: Tim Mossholder/ Pexels

Excerpts from the autonomy-supportive message included “You can support global efforts to curb transmission of COVID-19 by choosing to stay at home” and “It’s about finding your own way of making social distancing work for you, whether it is by finding outdoor spaces without many people, carefully navigating public spaces by keeping distance between you and others, or finding ways to bring entertainment home rather than seeking it outside.”

On the other hand, the controlling message included language such as “If you don’t stay at home, it really shows that you don’t care about keeping other people healthy” and “If you want to maintain your social life, you should stay connected via social media, chat, and video. Don’t be irresponsible and endanger others.”

After viewing the messages, participants completed a measure of their motivation to follow social distancing recommendations. The results indicated that the controlling, pressuring message increased controlled motivation to follow recommendations out of guilt and fear of social punishment. Whereas the autonomy-supportive message that promoted agency and ownership lowered feelings of defiance. Additionally, compared to the controlling message, the autonomy-supportive message increased the internalization of the value of social distancing.

In conclusion, in a public health context, autonomy-supportive messages have some benefits over controlling messages for motivation and feelings of defiance. These findings may have similar applications for other public health behavioral recommendations, including mask-wearing, hand-washing, self-quarantining after exposure, and vaccination, for which evidence of defiance has also been observed.

This study can therefore help advance future research and applications of evidence-based health communication on a global scale for the current COVID-19 pandemic and for future public health crises.

advertisement