COVID-19: We Must Use Behavioral Science to Communicate Better during the Delicate Reopening Period

By Carlos Scartascini, Déborah Martínez, and Ana María Rojas 

The number of people infected with the novel coronavirus has surpassed 5 million worldwide. However, a significant number of countries are entering a new phase in the fight against SARS-COV-2, as the virus that causes the Covid-19 illness is known.

As can be seen from the following maps prepared using data from Oxford University,1 restrictions on movement2 are being relaxed. Football has returned in Germany, baseball in South Korea, and car racing (NASCAR) in the United States. These are some examples of the loosening of the lockdown3 in some countries.

The progressive relaxing of confinement measures is taking place in a context that is not ideal4 for preventing future spread of the virus: testing is still scarce, healthcare infrastructure is inadequate, and economic conditions in many countries and for individuals remain complex. At the same time, many people are growing tired of being shut in (often in crowded conditions) with no ability to earn income. While effective vaccines and treatments for the virus have been developed, the success of this stage will require people to continue to follow5 the personal hygiene and physical distancing recommendations that have been put into practice.

Communication and community participation are essential6 for reducing the spread of the virus and facilitating the sanitary measures that prevent infection. Clear and coherent messages from authorities inspire trust, produce solidarity, and motivate individuals and communities to follow the measures necessary to slow the spread of Covid-19.

Communication and community participation are essential for reducing the spread of the virus and facilitating the sanitary measures that prevent infection.

Society has had a period during which to practice turning these recommendations into habits, and some of them will provide new mental models that will become the new normal. Governments can use this practical guide7 to consolidate this behavior by using behavioral economics tools to ensure that people don’t abandon it as they return to workplaces and schools. However, with the reopening of economies, new guidelines must be communicated in order to stop the spread of the virus. They include:

More intensive use of cleaning products in common/public places;

• Compliance with capacity limits in factories, stadiums, restaurants, public transportation,etc.;

• Remote work, shiftwork, or staggered schedules;

• Use of new technologies to facilitate the identification of new cases of Covid-19;

• Sharing of private information (symptoms, contacts) relevant to enabling authorities to inform policy decisions.

In order to comply with these and other recommendations, citizens will have the difficult job of overcoming the deep behavioral biases and barriers that guide their decision-making, all of which are unfortunately accentuated in times of stress, exhaustion, and uncertainty. The following are some examples of communications informed by behavioral science to promote these guidelines.

Of course, behavioral messages and designs can only be used in the right context. To reduce the spread of the virus, they must be accompanied by investment (for example, increasing the availability of public transportation or cleaning supplies), regulations (different service days and hours), and with changes to prices and fees depending on a number of factors (prices that vary based on the transportation burden or higher pay for people willing to work off-hours in order to align their behavior with the need to fight the pandemic).

Communication as we come out of lockdown is complex. Messages will change over time, with some becoming obsolete, and it will be important to avoid anchoring society to information that is out of date, incomplete, or false.

Likewise, technology (for example, apps that use artificial intelligence to determine the presence of the virus based on symptoms, or apps that use Bluetooth for contact tracing) have to provide precise information in order to produce habitual behavior. High rates of false positives (indicating a high probability of infection where there is none or contact with infected people where there was none) erode confidence in these apps and, therefore, in their use.

Communication as we come out of lockdown is complex. Messages will change over time, with some becoming obsolete, and it will be important to avoid anchoring society to information that is out of date, incomplete, or false. Communication must be clear not only on what is known but also on what remains uncertain. This will make it possible to correct information as more is learned without losing the trust of the public. The key is for the campaigns to continue, but to adapt to changing circumstances, to circulate both good and bad news on the illness and change people’s risk perceptions.8 Just as companies adapt their advertising to new fashion trends and politicians reformulate their advertisements to adapt them to public opinion, in the fight against the pandemic, authorities must be attentive to beliefs and perceptions,9 and consequently, be willing to adjust the information, message, and mode of communication. 

This article was originally published in Inter-American Development Bank. It can be accessed here:

About the Authors

Carlos Scartasciniis Head of the Development Research Group and Leader of the Behavioral Economics Group of the IDB. He is a member of the Executive Committee of IDB’s Gender and Diversity Lab, Associate Editor of Economía, and Founding Member of LACEA’s BRAIN (Behavioral Insights Network).

Déborah Martínez is a Senior Behavioral Economics Fellow at the Behavioral Economics Group at the IDB. She works with academics and governments in the Latin-American and Caribbean regions to develop field experiments based on behavioral economics principles to create evidence-based recommendations for public policy. 

Ana María Rojas is Policy Manager at Innovations for Poverty Action and previously served as a Senior Behavioral Fellow at the Inter-American Development Bank’s Behavioral Economics Group. She leads projects, conducts research, and provides technical support to policymakers in developing countries on designing, implementing and, evaluating, evidence-based and behavioral-informed policies.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.