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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Covid curves and charts cannot do what evocative appeals can

How will people behave once the Great Lockdown is lifted? Will they be cautious enough to maintain physical distance and wear masks while they are in public? A vaccine for covid -19 is several months away. So the best solution to mitigate the further spread of the viral disease is for people to voluntarily adopt a precautionary set of behaviours. But, if what we saw when Florida’s Jacksonville Beach or Kerala’s Thiruvananthapuram roads were opened for few hours is anything to go by, we have a lot to worry about. Why is it that despite experiencing one of the worst crises in human history, many people are still unwilling to adopt simple precautions? Blame it on a failure of the communication strategy used so far during the pandemic.

The latest and most sophisticated knowledge from the fields of medicine, artificial intelligence and data analytics have been used to tackle the pandemic. But the communication strategy around it was based on an outdated understanding of human behaviour. It was developed based on the belief that as long as we provide detailed information on the pandemic and build awareness of the appropriate behaviours to adopt, people will fall in line. This is a strategy that pays tribute to Homo economicus, the rational species.

Latest learnings on cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics provide us many new insights into how humans relate to risk. According to Neil Weinstein, professor emeritus, Rutgers University, US, people have an optimistic bias vis-à-vis their personal risk; when it comes to potential harm, such as disease or catastrophe, people think that others are more likely to be affected than them. Optimism is the greatest when people have little personal experience of the hazard, the chances of its occurrence are low, and when hazards are thought to be controllable by oneself. The asymptomatic nature of the covid contagion made it even harder to relate to its risk. Thanks to these behavioural vagaries, many people could not fully perceive its real risk.

However, some did panic, and in their attempts to keep pandemic panic at bay, the authorities focused on keeping stress levels in check. This communication strategy ended up mollycoddling the general public. Many ended up thinking that being infected with the virus is like having a high fever and cough. The casualness of those congregating in public places is proof that most people haven’t grasped the real risk of this pandemic. How do we make these people understand its seriousness and behave more cautiously?

The world’s situation is such that all developments of the human race have proven useless in front of a virus. This is similar to the days when humans had not yet invented any tools to defend themselves from predators in the wild. Evolutionary psychologists would remind us that in those days, basic human nature was the only help we had against threats. Today, that very human nature could be evoked to protect the human species from the covid pandemic.

Learnings on neuroscience inform us that emotions are an integral part of all human decisions. For human beings, emotions serve as the first screen for all information received. The emotion of fear was our species’ best protection against any danger. It has saved far more lives than even modern medicine. While developing strategies to protect ourselves from the covid outbreak, it is worth bearing in mind that the basic construct of the human brain places emotions before reason.

According to neurobiologist Lilianne Mujica-Parodi, “You don’t want someone without a fear response at all." In times of danger, fear is our best friend. It’s a chemical reaction, a signal to pay attention to a threat. When we get scared, our bodies react physically and triggers our fight-or-flight response. According to Neal Miller, a behavioural psychologist, fear is an internal energizer of behaviour, and a scared person always tries to get away from the fear-arousing stimulus. If this pandemic did not make people display this avoidance response in public places, it is probably because they did not perceive any threat from the person next to them.

Most of the communication put out on the current pandemic has been in the form of graphs, numbers and stick figures. Authorities have been speaking about “flattening the curve", not saving human lives. As thousands more got afflicted, human lives have become just another dot on a graph.These lifeless graphs do not generate any emotion among those who are not statistically inclined enough to grasp what they reflect at a glance. Emotions are usually generated by vivid, real-life stories of individuals. The Vietnam photograph of a naked girl running away after a napalm bomb attack captured all the horrors of that war in a single frame. If covid graphs are replaced with stories and images that capture the emotional intensity of this tragedy, we would perform better.

We could encourage people to hold their breath for 20 seconds to get them to relate to the heaviness in the chest of those infected with the coronavirus. Images of sportspeople who got affected by this disease should be played up to alter youth attitudes. It’s also clear that the crisis would have held stronger emotional appeal if the communication focused on families, not just individuals. All these initiatives should be topped up with a strict instruction to wear masks in public, which offers visual proof that these are not normal times. We cannot expect people to take precautions in the absence of adequate levels of apprehension.

This strategy is not without negative side effects, though. Feelings of fear could reduce the chances of people voluntarily asking for covid tests. It could also lead to increased chances of the ostracization of those infected. These issues have to be tackled through appropriate communication too.

The covid pandemic reminds us that to achieve behavioural change among a significantly large number of people, the emotional language of “saving lives" is far more effective than the rational communication of “flattening the curve".

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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