The behavioural science of health pandemics

We love studying human behaviour. That’s one of the reasons we’re in the market research industry. People are predictable, yet at the same time utterly baffling. At Breaking Blue we’ve turned to behavioural science to dig into this a little deeper, to try to understand not what people say they do, but what they actually do and explore why they do it. We’re not alone in doing this of course, but applying a behavioural science lens to the current global health crisis and some of the behaviours we’re seeing is very insightful.

Take the trend in some nations such as the UK to stockpile groceries, like toilet roll and pasta. This may well be ‘herd behaviour’ (not herd immunity) in full flow. People are doing things because they see other people are doing the same. There may also be loss aversion at play – they don’t want to miss out. What if I missed my chance to buy pasta? I might feel regret – and ‘regret anticipation’ and aversion can be compelling enough to make us act (i.e. buy pasta!)

There may be a more compelling force acting upon us too, which is the sense – or illusion – of control. Steven Taylor, author of “The Psychology of Pandemics” suggests that panic buying allows us to feel like we’re taking control of our own situation. Hand washing and good hygiene appear to be the best steps we can take, but do they feel ‘enough’ in the face of a pandemic? (Read more in this article by Susan Perry). This may also feed into ‘action bias’ – we just have to do something. Anything is better than nothing, and inaction might well feed into an anticipation of regret.

Those who dismiss what they’re being told as “just another virus, with a similar outcome to common types of flu” are subject to the ‘outcome bias’, which describes an error made in evaluating a decision based on previous outcomes of a similar nature, rather than making a decision based on current evidence. Consider too optimism bias, or “I’m young so I won’t get it.” The numbers are changing on a daily basis, but it’s looking more and more like the virus is not exclusive to the elderly.

Then there are the multitude of hypotheses about what will or won’t happen in the future as a result of coronavirus. This is where ‘confirmation bias’ comes into play. Whether we like it or not, we favour information that confirms our previously existing beliefs or biases.

There are probably many more biases at play than the ones we’ve discussed here. While the future is somewhat uncertain, one thing we can be sure of is that we’re not as rational as we like to think we are.

By Dr Adele James, Behavioural Science Lead and Rachel Cope, Director