Behavior Change in the Time of Coronavirus: Why We Need Systems Thinking

Title card with the post title, "Behavior Change in the Time of Coronavirus"Note: This comes from a five month old draft. Unfortunately, the situation has gotten worse rather than better, although we now have a roadmap to vaccination. Yay to that!

I don’t think I would ever have claimed otherwise, but it’s nonetheless humbling to be presented with the evidence. Individual behavior change tactics are not enough. As the coronavirus pandemic rages in the US, we continue to struggle to get individuals to comply with mask wearing and social distancing. And there is no amount of individually-focused interventions that will fix it. We are seeing a huge failure of the system and a real-time case study for why systems thinking (and cross-functional collaboration) are necessary for true cultural-level behavior change.

There are obviously a lot of individual behaviors that can help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Evidence is clear that wearing a face covering, maintaining physical distance from other people not in your household, and staying home as much as possible all help to curb the pandemic. The good news is that behavior change design can help us understand what prompts those behaviors and create interventions to encourage them.

I want to add the huge caveat that it’s very difficult for individuals to sustain a behavior pattern inside a system that discourages it or puts up lots of obstacles, which is unfortunately what we’re seeing in many parts of the US. We’ve got a living laboratory about how mixed messages from leadership and competing motivations (like having bars and restaurants open when people should stay home but are lonely and miss their old lives) interfere with people’s good intentions.

That said, the pandemic isn’t going to fade from anyone’s memories in the next several years and I think it would be a useful example at some points, in particular to talk about the importance of situating individual behavior change within a context that supports it. I sometimes talk about tobacco as an example of a public health success story. So many fewer people smoke today in the US than they did seventy years ago. You can attribute it to a combination of reliable, credible information from the Surgeon General about the harms of cigarette smoke; individual level interventions to help people quit; and policy-driven changes like increased cigarette taxes and prohibitions on smoking in restaurants and bars. Then, over time, social norms and perceptions of smoking shift to make it less acceptable. Any one of those mechanisms by itself wouldn’t have had as big an effect, but when you get different parts of the system working together toward a common goal, it’s much more impactful. 

Data from the Truth Foundation showing the negative correlation between cigarette taxes in a state and the smoking rate

Right now in the US we are seeing what happens when the levers in the system aren’t working in concert. I’ve seen my behavior change design colleagues propose several excellent individual and small group level interventions for things like wearing masks, washing hands, and staying home but their effect is limited when there isn’t a consistent government response and when you have dynamics like businesses pushing to reopen (for understandable reasons). It’s very hard to create an individual intervention that will work in the context where someone is getting mixed messages about the right behaviors and has to make choices between drawing their paycheck and limiting their risk of getting the virus.

This is a hard time for everyone. For me and for my fellow behavior scientists, it’s hard to have some of the tools that could make a difference but lack the opportunity to use them in the most impactful way. For all of us as humans, it’s hard to be pushed out of our normal orbits into uncomfortable and lonely new routines. For many people, this is an economically devastating time on top of all of the other pain and loss bundled in. By remembering that we need a systems approach, I’ve found it easier to direct some of my anger and hurt to a place where it more appropriately belongs rather than lashing out at individuals who yes, could do better, but are also behaving in a very human way.

One of my goals for 2021 is to find a way to work across disciplines so that behavior science can help us climb out of the pandemic. Whatever your area of focus, I hope you share this goal too.

Related Pieces:
I wrote one piece for an employer audience about steps they can take to help their employees stay safe in returning to work. It’s based on the COM-B model that I reference in chapters 5 and 6 of Engaged. My intention here is not to put responsibility for safety on employees. My goal is to encourage employers to make those individual behaviors as easy as possible if employees are going to be in a work environment. To my point above, it’s enabling the individual behavior layer of a multi-pronged safety strategy.

I also talked with Linn Vizard at Adobe XD about behavior change for COVID from a motivational perspective.

A number of COVID-related resources from various Mad*Pow SMEs are available on our website.

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