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Understanding our behaviour, from outbreak to lockdown

Joe Marshall looks at what behaviour change models can tell us about the UK Government response to Covid-19.

In this age of 24/7 news and conversation over social media, following endless COVID-19 updates is exhausting. But as someone who works daily with behaviour-change models, it has provided interesting insight into debate over the UK government’s response.

Discussions around the initial ‘herd immunity’ strategy centred on whether this was based on advice from epidemiologists or behavioural scientists. Many people in the UK had concerns about the implications of a strategy rooted in the latter. But it’s also clear that changing human behaviour nationally is key to reducing the virus’ overall impact.

At Pegasus, our approach to changing behaviour is based on University College London’s COM-B model. It recognises that behaviour is made up of three component parts: capability, opportunity and motivation. By analysing each of these we can better understand the barriers to changing behaviour, and identify potentially successful interventions to help overcome those barriers. Applying this to COVID-19 helps illustrate the scale of the Government’s challenge.

Taking capability first, it’s clear that knowledge was initially a huge barrier to people adopting new behaviours that could contain the spread. Many claimed the virus was no more serious than seasonal flu (itself often falsely equated with the common cold). Basic information such as transmission and mortality rate never seemed to be fully grasped. In many cases, this was reinforced by challenges around social opportunity – in other words, peer pressure from social networks to continue with normal daily activities like going to the gym, meeting friends at the pub, the daily commute.

When it comes to barriers, motivation seems to have underpinned everything we’ve seen. Many seem to have decided that the social costs of self-isolation outweigh the benefits of reducing the risk that they might become infected (or pass the virus on). Not only are we inherently social creatures, we’re also very good at focusing on immediate, tangible benefits (seeing family and friends, getting fresh air) over the possibility of the longer-term costs (contracting a virus that, for many, involves relatively mild symptoms).

It’s why we continued to see crowds outdoors even after the Government’s initial lockdown. It’s also why the Government seems to be adopting an integrated approach  – supplementing digital initiatives with more traditional channels like direct mail, or imposing fines on those caught breaking lockdown rules. Whether these measures are enough remains to be seen but it’s clear that to halt the contagion, we must rethink the way we live our lives by changing our established behaviours.

is a Senior Strategist in our Strategy & Insights team.