COVID-19: what social scientists need us to know


COVID-19, what social scientists need us to know

This article is authored by Jay Van Bavel and Robb Willer.
In December 2019, a new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) emerged, sparking an epidemic of acute respiratory syndrome (COVID-19) in humans, centered in Wuhan, China. Within three months, the virus had spread to more than 118,000 cases and caused 4,291 deaths in 114 countries, leading the World Health Organization to declare a global pandemic. The pandemic has led to a massive global public health campaign to slow the spread of the virus by increasing hand washing, reducing face touching, wearing masks in public, and physical distancing.
While efforts to develop pharmaceutical interventions for COVID-19 are under way, the social and behavioural sciences can help policy-makers, leaders, and the public better understand how to manage threats, navigate different social and cultural contexts, improve science communication, align individual and collective interests, employ effective leadership, and provide social and emotional support. By leveraging these insights, we hope that people will be better equipped to encourage the population to the take the critical steps outlined by epidemiologists and other public health experts to minimize the devastation of the current pandemic.
In an effort to support COVID-19 responses, we combined the insights from 41 experts in the social and behavioural science. We pulled together some of the most useful insights from numerous scientific fields to provide guidance for public health experts, policy makers, and community leaders.

  • A shared sense of identity or purpose can be encouraged by addressing the public in collective terms and by urging “us” to act for the common good.
  • Identifying sources (e.g., religious or community leaders) that are credible to different audiences to share public health messages can be effective.
  • Leaders and the media might try to promote cooperative behavior by emphasizing that cooperating is the right thing to do and that other people are already cooperating.
  • Norms of prosocial behaviour are more effective when coupled with the expectation of social approval and modeled by ingroup members who are central in social networks.
  • Leaders and members of the media should highlight bipartisan support for COVID-related measures, when they exist, as such endorsements in other contexts have reduced polarization and led to less biased reasoning.
  • There is a need for more targeted public health information within marginalized communities, and for partnerships between public health authorities and trusted organizations that are internal to these communities.
  • Messages that (1) emphasize benefits to the recipient, (2) focus on protecting others, (3) align with the recipient’s moral values, (4) appeal to social consensus or scientific norms, and/or (5) highlight the prospect of social group approval tend to be persuasive.
  • Given the importance of slowing infections, it may be helpful to make people aware that they benefit from others’ access to preventative measures.
  • Preparing people for misinformation and ensuring they have accurate information and counterarguments against false information before they encounter conspiracy theories, fake news, or other forms of misinformation, can help ‘inoculate’ them against false information.
  • Use of the term “social distancing” might imply that one needs to cut off meaningful interactions. A preferable term is “physical distancing,” because it allows for the fact that social connection is possible even when people are physically separated.

These are merely a selection of relevant topics and little work has been published on COVID-19. We call for the scientific community to mobilize rapidly to produce research to directly inform policy and individual/collective behaviour in response to the pandemic. It is our hope that scientists will be able to work closely with public health experts to not only address the current pandemic, but learn the right lessons to prevent future pandemics.
Excerpts were drawn from the following paper: Van Bavel, J. J., Baicker, K., Boggio, P. S., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., Crockett, M. J., Crum, A. J., Douglas, K. M., Druckman, J. N. Drury, J., Dube, O., Ellemers, N., Finkel, E. J., Fowler, J. H., Gelfand, M., Han, S., Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., Kitayama, S., Mobbs, D., Napper, L. E., Packer, D. J., Pennycook, G., Peters, E., Petty, R. E., Rand, D. G., Reicher, S. D., Schnall, S., Shariff, A., Skitka, L. J., Smith, S. S., Sunstein, C. R., Tabri, N., Tucker, J. A., van der Linden, S., Van Lange, P. A. M., Weeden, K. A., Wohl, M. J. A., Zaki, J., Zion, S. & Willer, R. (in press). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response.  Nature Human Behaviour. We encourage anyone who is interested to read the full paper (here).

Jay Van Bavel is Associate Professor of Psychology & Neural Science at New York University (NYU), and Director of the Social Identity and Morality Lab. His research uses a social neuroscience approach to address how collective concerns shape the brain and behavior.

Robb Willer is a professor of sociology, psychology, and organizational behavior and Director, Polarization and Social Change Lab at Stanford University. He is an American sociologist and social psychologist whose research includes politics, morality, status, and cooperation.

The authors are responsible for the facts contained in the article and the opinions expressed therein, which are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.