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Lessons for COVID-19 – Part 3: Strategies to influence behaviour during a pandemic


Part 3: The ability of leaders to shift behaviour is crucial during challenging times, when your people need it most

As discussed in Part One and Part Two of Isaac Baker‘s 7 part series on applying behavioural insights to drive behaviour change in response to COVID-19; pandemics pose a dangerously real and significant threat to businesses and their people.

Business leaders have been thrust into implementing, and in many cases creating, emergency management plans in response to COVID-19.

Despite the uncertainty with unfolding events and potential future, you have the ability to apply techniques grounded in behavioural science to influence people’s behaviour towards individual, business and societal good – a process broadly known as behavioural insights.

What can get in the way?

During these complex and uncertain times, there are a number of barriers to effectively influencing the behaviour of our people.

Barriers: Outdated or Unclear Social Norms

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a burden has been placed upon the shoulders of leaders to drive collective action of masses of people [1].

A barrier to influencing desired behaviour can be people conforming to outdated social norms that existed before the pandemic and that are no longer beneficial during and following the pandemic.

Social norms set an expectation of acceptable behaviours across various contexts, which people are then strongly compelled to adhere to [2]. Social norms are a powerful influencer of people’s behaviour.

While people look to others to inform their own behaviour, occasionally perceptions of social norms are inaccurate [3]. This can lead to people making errors in unknowingly carrying out actions that are incongruent with the values and beliefs of the group. For instance, when working remotely people may not be aware of the protocol to keep in touch with team members via email according to some set schedule.

People tend to conform to social norms with those we have strong, shared identities [4]. This can have both beneficial and detrimental impacts. It can be detrimental when it leads to us being less open to insights and recommendations from perceived outgroups; and beneficial for openness to those from perceived ingroups. Whatever the identities and qualities (e.g., occupation, age, etc) from which we divide and unify groups, these distinctions can lead to placing higher or lower value on the behaviours and recommendations based on perceived ingroup-outgroup membership. Thus, it can act as a barrier to effectively influencing behaviour.

Why do we conform to social norms?

  1. People may conform to others’ behaviour because they are lacking appropriate knowledge on how to optimally behave in a given situation [3, 5]. Particularly during times of uncertainty, such as in pandemics, we look to others to inform our best and most socially acceptable course of action—e.g., how many toilet paper rolls should I buy!?
  2. People want to maintain good social standings in their groups [2]. People who go against the grain and engage in unacceptable, or even taboo, behaviour can undergo exclusion from groups and be treated as social pariahs. Thus, to maintain one’s reputation, people seek out and adhere to accepted social rules and codes of conduct, where compliance in public is often greater than in private.

Solutions: Updated or Refreshed Social Norms

  • Highlight social norm. In your communications and marketing, specify the group’s accepted behaviours and code of conduct, and that these are endorsed by the majority of the group [6]. Examples include:
    • In-group (template 1): Most people in [insert norm group; .e.g, organisation] [insert accepted behaviour].
      • Most people in [Mapien] [wash their hands after touching surfaces].
    • In-group (template 2): Most people in [insert norm group; .e.g, organisation] believe that people should [insert accepted behaviour].
      • Most people in [Mapien] believe that people should [wash their hands after touching surfaces].
    • In-group + authority: Based on the recommendations of [medical doctors], most people in [Mapien] believe that people should [stay at home to assist with the covid-19 response].
  • Targeted social norm messages. Create messages that are tailored to specific group. Draw upon the relevant social norms of the target group [4, 6].
    • Create in-group norms for different target groups (e.g., older v younger groups)
    • Refer to the social norm that is relevant, salient, and where there are strong shared identities with the target group.
  • Explicitly note the new or emerging social norms. People do not want to ‘miss the boat’ when it comes to social change. People are keen to jump onboard when they are made aware there is a growing new social norm of accepted behaviour [7].

As a leader, consider what barriers could be getting in the way of the behaviours you wish to see in your people. By applying these and other techniques grounded in behavioural science evidence, you give yourself the best opportunity to influence your desired target behaviours.

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This article is Part 3 in a 7 Part series applying behavioural insights to drive behaviour change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To learn more about the Behaviour Change Toolkit from which these insights are grounded, or if you would like to discuss the application of behavioural insights to your organisation during these challenging times, feel free to reach out to Isaac Baker here.

Alternatively, contact us today and one of our Mapien workplace strategists will be in touch within 24 hours.

Written By
Isaac Baker
Isaac has a thorough understanding of the science of human behaviour and creates effective, specialised interventions to solve complex people problems.



[1] Donner, W. R., Rodriguez, H., & Diaz, W. (2007). Public Warning Response Following Tornadoes in New Orleans, LA, and Springfield, MO: A Sociological Analysis. Second Symposium on Policy and Socio-economic Research. San Antonio, Texas.

[2]. Cialdini, R. B. & Goldstein, N. J. (2004). Social Influence: Compliance and Conformity. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 55, 591–621.

[3]. Bikhchandani, S., Hirshleifer, D. & Welch, I. (1998). Learning from the Behavior of Others: Conformity, Fads, and Informational Cascades. J. Econ. Perspect. 12, 151–170.

[4]. Abrams, D., Wetherell, M., Cochrane, S., Hogg, M. A. & Turner, J. C. (1990). Knowing what to think by knowing who you are: self-categorization and the nature of norm formation, conformity and group polarization. Br. J. Soc. Psychol. 29 ( Pt 2), 97–119.

[5]. Miller, D. T. & Prentice, D. A. (1996). The construction of social norms and standards. In Social psychology:  Handbook of basic principles, 799–829 (Guilford Press).

[6]. Halpern, D. (2015). Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference. (Random House).

[7]. Sparkman, G. & Walton, G. M. (2017) Dynamic Norms Promote Sustainable Behavior, Even if It Is Counternormative. Psychol. Sci. 28, 1663–1674.