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Explained: the importance of behavioural responses when implementing a lockdown

How do life-changing situations affect our behaviour? Dr Martin Dempster from the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast is working to find out.

Since the early signs of COVID-19 becoming a life-changing situation for everyone in the country, the public health advice has been to wash your hands regularly and to maintain social distancing, staying at least two metres away from others. Both responses require individual action and a change in usual behaviour. Media reports suggest that many people were not following the social distancing guidelines (it is impossible to say at this stage how much people are adhering to the handwashing advice) and, as a result, the government has introduced more stringent measures to try to affect this change.

This raises a question about why some people did not follow the initial public health advice and change their behaviour as requested and why some people will continue to flout the advice. The answer lies in an understanding of the processes involved in changing behaviour.

What is behaviour change?

Behaviour change is a complex phenomenon and often does not happen quickly or easily. The lifestyle habits we form over many years are deeply ingrained and can be difficult to overturn. Anyone who has ever tried to establish a change in their behaviour (eg taking up some regular exercise or changing their eating habits) is likely to be aware of the difficulties of behaviour change.

Psychological theory tells us that there are several factors that are likely to influence behaviour change. Those factors that might influence a decision to socially distance to avoid COVID-19 are your appraisal of the threat and of the actions that you can take to alleviate this threat.

What factors influence behaviour change?

A person’s threat appraisal will be influenced by how vulnerable they think they are to COVID-19 and how severe their symptoms will be if they get COVID-19. People who feel that they are vulnerable but that the illness is not severe are unlikely to have a high threat appraisal and people who think that the illness will be severe but they are unlikely to get it will have a low threat appraisal. More recently, we have been encouraged to also think about the threat (vulnerability and susceptibility) to others, so even though you might not feel threatened personally, you are encouraged to understand that your behaviour can result in others being affected.

A person’s coping appraisal (their appraisal of the actions they can take to deal with the threat) is a result of their beliefs about the efficacy of social distancing and the cost of this behaviour. A person is more likely to engage in social distancing if they believe that doing so can reduce the threat. In the early days of this crisis, there was a lot of information to suggest that most of us would get COVID-19 eventually. This message might well reduce a person’s belief about the efficacy of social distancing. They might believe that if the threat is so high that we are highly likely to get this infection, then what is the point of social distancing. No doubt, the aim with these early messages was to frighten people into action, but the evidence suggests that fear is not a good motivator of behaviour change and, in this case, you can see how it could actually be counterproductive.

A person’s coping appraisal will also be informed by the perceived cost of the behaviour, ie the things that act as barriers to social distancing. If someone believes that their life will be depressing as a result of not being able to make physical contact with friends and extended family members, then this might be too high a price to pay. Undoubtedly, social distancing and social isolation can be damaging psychologically, and steps need to be taken to alleviate this negative consequence in order to increase the likelihood of behaviour change.

There are many factors to be considered when asking people to change their behaviour and maintain this change in the longer term. The way that risk messages are framed will have a large impact on the formation of people’s beliefs and their subsequent actions.

School of Psychology