Behavioral science recommendations for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic have now been tested

RCGD affiliate Shinobu Kitayama contributes to a landmark evaluation

Shinobu KitayamaANN ARBOR — Behavioral science recommendations made early on in the COVID-19 pandemic were largely correct. In April 2020, a hugely influential paper (Van Bavel et al) proposed 19 policy recommendations describing how insights from behavioral science could reduce the impacts of the pandemic. The paper received unprecedented attention and a considerable dust-up of doubt. Big claims were cast– and they have now been tested.

A landmark evaluation just published in Nature evaluates the 19 claims outlined in the 2020 review. Two independent teams, involving 72 reviewers led by Kai Ruggeri, assessed 747 pandemic-related research articles to test those claims. They report the scale of evidence, and the extent to which the statements provided valid policy guidance based on empirical evidence of consistent, real-world impact.

 “This collective work shows that even though the COVID-19 virus is a biological entity, its behavior depends entirely on socio-cultural dynamics, calling for social and behavioral science research for prediction and prevention of future pandemics,” said Shinobu Kitayama, who is the Robert B. Zajonc Collegiate Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan, and an affiliate of the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research. Kitayama was a co-author on this synthesis.

The team found that the strongest evidence supported claims that anticipated that culture, polarization, and misinformation would be associated with policy effectiveness; for example, strong correlations indicated that cultures accustomed to prioritizing freedom over security may have more difficulty coordinating in the face of a pandemic, and that partisan identities lead to significantly different opinions and reported behaviors in response to the pandemic. The synthesis also showed strong evidence for claims suggesting that bipartisan agreement, social consensus, trusted leaders, and positive social norms increased adherence to behavioral intentions. The team did not find meaningful support for the claim that messages emphasizing benefits to the recipient or focusing on protecting others tend to be persuasive. Instead, they revise that claim to suggest that messages might be more effective when they align closely with the values of the recipients, appeal to social consensus or scientific norms, and highlight group approval.

The authors emphasized the value of revisiting claims that scientists make that are of substantial relevance to policy, and to contributing to the kind of transparency that not only builds trust but can also directly inform the development of knowledge for facing future crises. 

This post was written by Tevah Platt, communications specialist for the Research Center for Group Dynamics.

About the Research Center for Group Dynamics

Since its establishment in 1948, the Research Center for Group Dynamics’ mission has been to advance the understanding of human behavior in social contexts. Learn more about RCGD and its Group Dynamics seminars from With Catherine Thomas, Shinobu Kitayama was co-organizer of this fall’s seminar series, open to the public, on “Psychological Diversity across the Globe.”