Human behaviour is key to the spread of coronavirus, so government scientists are trying to control our decisions. Does it work, and what happens when they get it wrong?
6 May 2020
“I WAS at a hospital the other night where I think there were actually a few coronavirus patients, and I shook hands with everybody, you’ll be pleased to know. I continue to shake hands and I think it’s very important…” UK prime minister Boris Johnson, Downing Street press conference, 3 March 2020.
“Sick Boris faces fight for life”. Front page, Daily Mirror, 7 April 2020.
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If a week is a long time in politics, a month is an eternity in a pandemic. In early March, few batted an eyelid at Johnson’s handshakes. Now they seem reckless.
News of the prime minister’s illness led many of the Twitterati to point out that the coronavirus “doesn’t discriminate”. Wrong. It does – by behaviour. If you come into contact with an infected person, you may well catch it. If you don’t, you probably won’t.
This is why behavioural science is absolutely central to our fight against the pandemic. Clearly, the hard biomedical sciences such as virology, epidemiology, immunology and pharmacology matter. But unless we also factor in the science of human behaviour – how real humans in the real world act and think – our understanding is incomplete, and our attempts to defeat the virus will fail.
Getting people to do what we want is notoriously hard, which is why governments around the world have been relying on behavioural scientists to inform their approach to the pandemic. There’s everything to play for, as Molly Crockett, a psychologist at Yale University, and her colleagues wrote in a recent paper on behavioural science in the time of …