We can learn a lot from the communications experiment that has played out before our eyes (and has to varying degrees affected our lives) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the biggest tenants of public messaging that was further reinforced in 2020 — People hate being told what they can and cannot do.
The Fine Art of Nuanced Health Messaging
If we shift the messaging a little bit to actions and safety choices as opposed to what you can’t do, messaging can become more effective. Doctors do this with good results. Instead of telling someone trying to lose weight that they can’t ever have dessert again, giving realistic advice can be more useful. “I know you’re going to be go off your diet sometimes. When you do, here’s some choices that are a little safer than others.”
The public messaging for COVID safety could work in the same way:
“Spend time outdoors more than indoors. Closed spaces, crowded places with close contact are dangerous. Maybe you want to avoid indoor spaces, outdoors are better for you.” That’s a big difference from the narrative of “you can’t do anything.”
Turns out Talking to People about the COVID-19 is a Lot Like Sex Ed for Teens
Educating the public about COVID-19 can actually take a page from the playbook of sex education directed at adolescents. Because adults respond about the same as most junior high school kids, COVID-19 is basically like sex ed for adults.
With sex education when you preach pure abstinence, behavior does not change, that can be statistically proven. When you present avoiding sex as the only option, all the negative consequences of unprotected sex goes largely unmitigated. There’s still pregnancies and STIs at the same rate as not having any education. When you change the message a little bit to if you’re going to have sex use condoms, ask your partner’s history, same monogamous relationships things like that, the number of consequences gets better
All or Nothing Gets Us Nowhere
You don’t eliminate it but all those things go way down. Why? It comes down to psychology and human nature.
When you teach abstinence based education, it sets up this all or nothing dynamic. When someone does something beyond abstinence, they throw in the whole towel. Diets that get presented as an abstinence based practice turn out the same way. When you say, “You can’t have cake,” and they happen to have a piece of cake it becomes “well I had cake, I’m a bad guy” and that blows the doors wide open for more misbehaving.
Instead rather than preaching total abstinence to cake, how about:
“Here’s some better choices than cake. But if you happen to have cake, I get it, you were at a birthday party, you had a bad day. It’s not the end of the world. But let’s get back on the bandwagon and pick up where you left off. You’re not a bad guy, you didn’t ruin everything you did before that, you’re still doing good.”
For COVID-19 Messaging, Let’s Not Sound Like a Nagging Parent
Also, when you create an all-or-nothing messaging, you set yourself up as the messenger to be rebelled against. When the person you’re trying to influence gets away with something, it self-reinforces. For COVID-19, we’ve seen this. “I went to a restaurant, nothing happened.” “I forgot to wear a mask last week, nothing happened.” The bad behavior becomes less significant when you get away with it. And the messenger becomes less believed because, well, “what do they know, I got away with going out to eat and nothing happened. Why should I trust anything they say?”
There becomes the issue that you’re either on one side or the issue or you’re on the other team. We can’t be sick of COVID and COVID precautions and still be compliant. You either have to be sick of it, which means you’re going to rebel and not follow any of the rules, or you must not be sick of it and you love following the rules.
And that is completely not true.
I’m sick of COVID. I’m sick of wearing a mask. But I’m still going to do it because it makes good public health sense and it does actually help. There’s a lot of people that feel the same way, but they’re far less vocal than the rebels so we don’t often hear from this middle ground.
On a public health front, our messaging should be to empathize and understand the public’s needs. It shouldn’t be to set ourselves up as the all-or-nothing authority. Saying things like “We know you want to go out. When you do, try to avoid closed spaces, closed contact, prolonged contact. Gathering in small groups outside will probably be better for everyone.” could really go far to de-escalate the issue.
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