How nudging in the COVID-19 crisis is driving better decision making

How has behavioural science been leveraged during the pandemic? Has it helped us to make better choices? And are there any UX learnings we can extrapolate from its successes and failures?

The human brain is mis-wired in some surprising ways. Many of these thought and behaviour “biases” are things which held us in good stead for life in our ancestral pasts (like eating a lot of high calorie foods when they’re available, in case of famine) but sometimes act against us in our modern lives.

Behavioural economics (BE), the study of decision-making, is an important topic for experience and service designers. It provides a robust explanation of why people act in the ways we do. And by harnessing these learnings, we can start to impact these cycles and nudge towards desired rather than predisposed outcomes. 

Coronavirus - Stay home, save lives

Behavioural economics during the COVID-19 crisis

This has never been more important than in the time of COVID-19. So, in between Teams calls and Cloud collaboration, we had a look at how some comms are leveraging BE biases to help us make better decisions. Decisions which will get us out the other side of this pandemic faster, and in better health. Let’s look at two examples as we walk through a potential day.

You wake up. First things first, it’s time for an exercise outing so you head to the near deserted streets of your local shopping precinct to stretch your legs. There you spot (as I did – photo shown above) this government ad advising you stay home and to “act like you’ve got it”.

Overconfidence and risk taking

Humans are inherently over-confident and optimistic even when the stakes are high - this is helpfully known as the “overconfidence bias”. As Thaler and Sunstein cite in their seminal text, Nudge (2008). We need look no further than common marriage as an example of this bias in action. “About 50% of marriages end in divorce…but around the time of the ceremony, almost all couples believe that there is approximately a zero percent chance that their marriage will end in divorce”. The text offers many more real world examples and empirical evidence for this pervasive bias.  

Unrealistic optimism is the root of lots of our individual risk taking. This means in the time of a pandemic, the potential mis-conception that “I’m not going to get it/don’t have it” needs to be acknowledged and counter-acted. “When they overestimate their personal immunity from harm, people may fail to take sensible preventative steps” (Nudge, 2008). In our case for example, those preventative steps would be staying in, washing hands, sneezing into a handkerchief etc. 

Tailoring communications to the bias

This well constructed strapline advising us to “act like you’ve got it” also circumnavigates the brain’s desire to defend pre-held beliefs (confirmation bias). You can imagine a line which tried to nudge more preventative/cautious behaviour carrying the sentiment of “catching it is easier than you think – you may have it now with no symptoms”. This could unconsciously be met with “no it isn’t, not for me” in those instantaneous knee-jerk reactions we have to opposing thoughts - which any readers of "Thinking Fast and Slow" (Kahneman, 2011) will recognise as "system 1" thinking.

This clever message is therefore not telling us we may have it, but telling us to just act like we do, regardless of the reality. Thus avoiding the over-confidence in (and unthinking defence of) the belief we don’t. Two unhelpful biases have been handled appropriately here, to encourage better behaviour. 

COVID-19 sympton tracker

Push notification nudging 

It’s just after lunch and you’re settling back down in front of your laptop for an afternoon’s work, and your phone pings. You see it’s a push notification from the COVID-19 symptom tracker asking you to self-report today (screen grab shown here). It’s caught you at a time when you have a minute, so you click, jump to that app and report feeling fine that day. But would you have completed that task today without this nudge?

All advertising (push notifications being one) is capitalising on a bias known as 'availability bias.' Meanwhile, 'direct response' advertising – messages which implore us to take action right now – in particular are also using recency bias (our ability to better recall things which have just happened). Push notifications puncture our lives, and with simple, action-oriented messaging, this notification is trying to get me to take action by first grabbing my attention, delivering a message and hopefully eliciting a response.

Making the desired action easy

All comms are about behaviour change, in one way or another, and changing behaviour is tough. We sometimes think of behaviour change as asking someone to climb a hill – we need to make the thing at the top of the hill sound worth the climb (in this case “reporting will really help our scientists analyse the spread of the virus” for example), and/or make the hill seem less steep.

This push notification is doing the latter. The hill’s incline is minimised both because I didn’t have to make the conscious effort to remember to open the app today (that decision was made for me by the notification), while the “take 1 min” also limits the perception of effort from this point. The founding tenet of all behavioural science is the human desire to avoid unnecessary effortful thinking. This push notification is leveraging exactly that. 

A brief thought on testing. The COVID-19 tracker will be continuously testing and learning the most effective mechanisms for timing and wording of this notification (real-time analysis being the beauty of all digital media). For example, you can imagine that our "making the thing at the top of the hill seem worth the climb" tactic was A/B tested (and lost) against what's shown here - e.g. highlighting the altruistic benefit of reporting today.

The timing will have been a hard fought series of tests also. The fact that this one shown came through at the point most people will have just finished lunch (2pm), and are not yet lost in their next work task, is probable to be a highly effective time of day to nudge app use.

Behavioural economics and user centred design at Nomensa 

We're only starting to understand the use and impact of behavioural science tenets on our population during COVID-19. Since we began writing this, we have already seen further, less popular advertising messages emerge that aim to impact behaviour. We'll be keeping an eye on it as it develops, so be sure to watch this space if you'd like to read more. 

At Nomensa, we understand how powerful – and polarising –harnessing behavioural biases can be. And effectively putting them into action in a project can be tricky. Fortunately, our team comes with a wealth of expertise. Behavioural economics is just one element in the world of psychology, and we can help you integrate this and other experience tactics into a wider programme of work geared at meeting your organisation's goals.

Get in touch with our team to discuss your unique needs. Call us on +44 (0) 117 929 7333 or say hello@nomensa.com.

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