What can behavioural insights teach us during a global pandemic?

BC Behavioural Insights Group (BC BIG)
BC BIG Ideas
Published in
4 min readApr 16, 2020


Image from SkyNews UK

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed all of our lives, at home and at work. At BC Behavioural Insights Group, we’re working closely with the BC Ministry of Health in applying behavioural science to understand the issue and offer timely advice.

We’ve been busy consulting the latest academic literature and public polls, referencing best practices from other jurisdictions, and establishing avenues for rapidly testing messages. These tools and insights are being used to inform our recommendations. As this work progresses over the coming months, we look forward to sharing our thoughts and learnings with you here on our blog, in a new series we’re calling BIG Ideas: Behavioural Science and COVID-19.

To kick off this series, we want to share some of what we’re learning so far.

The way in which governments around the world communicate with citizens during this global pandemic is critical — not only to help people feel safe and informed, but also to encourage everyone to take part in simple yet life-saving behaviours: hand washing and physical distancing. There have been posters, social media videos, comics, and infographics created in all corners of the world in an attempt to get the message out. As we, the BC Public Service, develop our messaging, it is important to consider how behavioural insights can add value.

Use clear and simple messaging

It’s easy to feel overloaded by the never-ending stream of COVID-19 news and information. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have previously developed helpful guiding principles for crisis communication. Communication strategies that they recommend include:

· Be first: Provide information as soon as possible
· Be right: Provide accurate information, including what is not known
· Be credible: Tell people the truth
· Express empathy: acknowledge how people are feeling
· Promote action: give people meaningful things to do to promote a sense of control
· Show respect: respectful communication promotes cooperation and rapport

One of the mantras of behavioural insights is to make things easy. As such, it is particularly important for government messaging to be clear, concise, consistent and concrete. Communications should focus on a small number of priority behaviours — hand washing, physical distancing, coughing etiquette, and self-isolation. Providing day-to-day examples of what is and is not acceptable within the current measures can also help to link the government’s request for action with the routines and lives of individuals.

Encourage people to act for the good of others

Studies have shown that people care about contributing to the greater good and making small sacrifices for the benefit of others. A well known hand washing study found that reminding doctors and nurses of the pro-social consequences of their behaviour “Hand hygiene prevents patients from getting diseases” was more effective than highlighting the personal consequences “Hand hygiene prevents you from getting diseases”.

Photo by Irina Ba on Unsplash

In the context of COVID-19, messaging should seek to emphasize how behaviours such as physical distancing are helping to keep other people safe and save lives, particularly of those who are vulnerable.

Be aware of gender differences

While we are only just beginning to understand how COVID-19 messaging impacts different population groups, there have been some recent findings related to gender differences. The Behavioural Insights Team in the UK, for example, found that young men are hardest to engage in coronavirus guidance. Another study found that messages focusing on how soap kills germs worked best for women, whereas men responded to messages that triggered disgust.

As time goes by, we hope to learn more about how best to tailor messages, as well as learn from other jurisdictions about opportunities to reach the most vulnerable individuals in society.

Consider influential messengers

One popular insight from behavioural science is that we are heavily influenced by who is communicating information.[1] Every day, thousands of people across our province tune in to the Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry’s, daily televised COVID-19 update. She exhibits the qualities that we know from research make someone a powerful messenger including authority (due to her expertise and position) and likeability (check out her Twitter fan club @bonniehenryfans). We’ve also seen the popularity of recent social media campaigns that encourage Canadian celebrities to share guidance on COVID-19 behaviours. As the crisis evolves in BC, we can continue to look to celebrities, prominent organizations like the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), and knowledgeable scientists to spread the message and set a positive example.

[1] The Behavioural Insights Team (2010). MINDSPACE. Available online at: https://www.bi.team/publications/mindspace/

For more information on COVID-19, visit the BC Government Support and Information Page (gov.bc.ca/covid).

Isabelle Andresen

Headshot professional photograph of young woman with brown hair and a big smile

Isabelle is a Senior Policy Advisor in the BC Behavioural Insights Group. Prior to this she worked for the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, helping to improve the design and delivery of policies and services through the application of behavioural science.



BC Behavioural Insights Group (BC BIG)
BC BIG Ideas

BC BIG is a corporate unit in the British Columbia Public Service that uses behavioural science to improve services for citizens and society.