Covid-19: Chaotic decision making and failure to communicate undermined government response, says reportBMJ 2020; 371 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4940 (Published 22 December 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m4940
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A social and behavioural response to: Covid-19: Chaotic decision making and failure to communicate undermined government response, says report
We read with great interest this BMJ report and we would like to reinforce and extend the message reported, by showing that the “chaotic decision-making” identified in the report is also likely to impact behavioural adherence with Tier 4 restrictions.
We have written previously that COVID lockdown adherence can be compromised by comparative optimism-fuelled beliefs (1) that “COVID is more likely to happen to others than to me” (2, 3). Comparative optimism is supported by the cognitive bias that “if it has not happened so far it is unlikely to happen now” (4), which means that for those in the population who have not personally been impacted by COVID so far, the belief they are less likely to succumb to it now is likely to be quite prominent. This comparative optimism is an ongoing, first threat to adherence with lockdown messages.
Secondly, adherence is harder where people are invited to engage in behaviours that are incongruent with social norms, for example, asking people to keep away from family and friends at Christmas (5). However, an intention to change behaviour and protect oneself from threats (e.g. stay at home and not meet relatives at Christmas), is likely if people perceive that the threat is severe, that they are susceptible to it, that changing their behaviour will limit the threat and that they are high in self-efficacy, i.e. that they are confident in their ability to act in such a way (6). At the moment, people who have been moved into higher Tiers in the UK, having followed the guidance in lower Tiers, are likely to be questioning the response efficacy of adhering to lockdown messages at all, as adherence with earlier Tier instructions has clearly not protected them from threat.
At the same time, these very same concepts of threat and response to threat, are known to be influenced by source credibility. Here, health communication science tells us that where a message source is seen by the recipient as credible, message compliance will be increased; Indeed “A source that is perceived as more credible is found to increase message compliance by increasing both the perceived message threat and efficacy” (7), p.291. The science would thus tell us that Tier 4 regulation compliance will only be higher with higher credibility attributed to the source of the message.
In a televised message, Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister (PM), told the nation to have “a Merry Little Christmas” only three days before he asked them to scrap that message and imposed Tier 4 lockdown measures widely. Whilst U-turns in messaging may well be tolerated in politics, in behavioural science we know that a message source is perceived as credible the more competent, trustworthy and caring it is seen to be (8). Although there are no publicly available data on how caring the UK PM is perceived to be, on November 30th 2020, three weeks before the latest U-turns in COVID policy, he was seen as competent by 34% of the UK population, and as trustworthy only by 26% (9, 10). Unless the latest U-turn has somehow increased these credibility indicators, behavioural science evidence would suggest that whilst attitudes towards the new restrictions may well be supportive (11) actual behavioural adherence with the latest Tier 4 restrictions messaging may well not follow through.
1. Weinstein ND. (1980) Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 39: 806‐ 820.
2. Asimakopoulou K. Unrealistic optimism is fuelling the burning building. BMJ. 2020; 368: m1101
3. Asimakopoulou K, Hoorens V, Speed E, Coulson NS, Antoniszczak D, Collyer F, Deschrijver E, Dubbin L, Faulks D, Forsyth R, Goltsi V, Harsløf I, Larsen K, Manaras I, Olczak-Kowalczyk D, Willis K, Xenou T, Scambler S. (2020) Comparative optimism about infection and recovery from COVID-19; Implications for adherence with lockdown advice. Health Expectations2020 Sep 27:10.1111/hex.13134. doi: 10.1111/hex.13134.
4. Tversky, A., Kahneman, D (1974) Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, 185: 4157, 1124-1131
5. Parsons,T. (1951). The Social System, New York: Routledge
6. Rogers, R. W. (1975). "A protection motivation theory of fear appeals and attitude change". Journal of Psychology. 91 (1): 93–114
7. De Meulenaer, S., De Pelsmacker, P., Dens, N. (2018) Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, and the Effects of Source Credibility on Health Risk Message Compliance, Health Communication, 33:3, 291-298
8. Pornpitakpan, C. (2004) The persuasiveness of source credibility: A critical review of five decades’ evidence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 243-281.
9. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/trackers/is-boris-johnson-trustworthy, accessed 21st December 2020
10. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/trackers/is-boris-johnson-incompetent, accessed 21st December 2020
Competing interests: No competing interests