Intended for healthcare professionals

Letters Covid-19: government communication

Covid-19: social and behavioural responses to chaotic decision making

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 01 February 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n249
  1. Koula Asimakopoulou, reader in health psychology1,
  2. Neil Coulson, professor in health psychology2,
  3. Dave Gilbert, distance learning coordinator1,
  4. Sasha Scambler, reader in sociology1
  1. 1King’s College London, Guy’s Hospital, London SE1 9RT, UK
  2. 2University of Nottingham, Medical School, Nottingham, UK
  1. koula.asimakopoulou{at}

“Chaotic decision making,” as well as undermining the government’s response to the pandemic,1 also lowers behavioural adherence to lockdown restrictions.

Lockdown adherence can be compromised by comparative optimism fuelled beliefs,2 such as “covid will affect others, but not me”34 and “if it has not happened yet, it is unlikely to happen now.”5 This comparative optimism is an ongoing threat to lockdown adherence, potentially augmented by the knowledge that a vaccine is imminent.

Secondly, an intention to change behaviour to protect oneself from health threats is more likely if people perceive that their change in behaviour will effectively limit the threat.6 People entering their third UK lockdown are thus likely to question the efficacy of adhering to lockdown messages, as previous adherence has clearly not protected them from threat.

Thirdly, adherence to behaviour change instructions is influenced by source credibility. “A source that is perceived as more credible is found to increase message compliance by increasing both the perceived message threat and efficacy.”7 The UK government has made several U-turns in its handling of covid-19—insisting schools were safe on one day, only to close them the next, for example. They described the prospect of a third lockdown as “a catastrophe,” weeks before instructing said lockdown. The U-turn on Christmas remains at the forefront of people’s memories.

U-turns in messaging might be tolerated in politics, but in behavioural science we know that, to be perceived as credible, a source must be competent, trustworthy, and caring.8 The UK prime minister was recently judged “competent” by 34% of the UK population and “trustworthy” by 26%.910 Behavioural science evidence indicates that, although attitudes towards this lockdown might be supportive,11 actual behavioural adherence is likely to fall short.


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