Global study yields new insights into effectiveness of social distancing messaging


A massive, global study of social distancing motivations has yielded new psychological insights into the effectiveness of different styles of social distancing messaging.

Nikki Legate and Arlen Moller, associate professors of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology, together with co-lead author Thuy-vy T. Nguyen, assistant professor of psychology at Durham University, found that messages that encouraged personal action were more likely to influence individuals. ‘ behaviors than those who controlled or humiliated.

Although the study began at the start of the pandemic, Moller says its findings may continue to prove useful in the future.

As pandemic fatigue sets in, many people around the world are considering abandoning risk-mitigation behaviors, while some are even going out of their way to defy them, despite death threats and the long COVID for self and others, and rising case rates in many places.”

Nikki Legate, Associate Professor of Psychology, Illinois Institute of Technology

The study was launched in response to a 2020 call for projects from the Psychological Science Accelerator, a democratic network of laboratories around the world, to use psychological science to help solve global problems related to COVID-19.

“The mission of this project [was] to find universally effective ways to motivate people to engage in social distancing around the world, and to see if there are any unintended costs to using common motivational strategies like shaming and pressuring people says Legate.

The researchers engaged 27,190 study participants from 89 countries and collected data from April to September 2020.

“There haven’t been many projects that involved coordinating team science in this way,” says Moller. “I think it’s borderline advancing the way psychological science is done.”

The team’s paper, titled “A global experiment in motivating social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic,” was published in May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal of the National Academy of Sciences. It was also presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in April. More than 500 contributors from around the world served as reviewers and co-authors of the article.

“It’s a pandemic that affects every corner of the world,” says Legate. “It was very important for us to really know if our messages were effective, were they effective on a global scale? We are interested in finding solutions that can be applied all over the world, not just in subsets We’re trying to figure out solutions for a global population, so the fact that we’ve seen some small generalizable effects is exciting.”

Study participants were randomly assigned one of three conditions: an autonomy support message that inspired thoughtful choices, a social distancing control message that was powerful and shameful, or no message at all. They read a short passage that was a call to engage in social distancing, then took a one-time survey.

“The messages were pretty much identical except for some key words; blame and humiliate versus those that encouraged agency and personal choice,” Legate said. “What we found was that those messages that we label as empowerment-supportive; messages that encourage choice and personal action around social distancing; had some advantages over messages that were controlling, really shamed or made people feel like a terrible person if they didn’t.”

For example, participants reading an autonomy support message felt less challenge than those reading a controlling or shameful message. Moller cites media coverage of “COVID parties” during the pandemic – instances where people showed up to large social gatherings despite government recommendations to stay home and socially distance, or socialize in small groups only -; as an example of challenge. He also says the study’s findings mirror those of other studies of human behavior and motivational messages.

“Correlational results were almost entirely in line with expectations in terms of challenge and long-term intentions,” Moller said. “There’s a lot of research on behavioral medicine that follows similar patterns to what we’ve seen here: exercise, take your medications, etc. But I don’t think any study on the motivation of behaviors healthcare has been as vast and diverse as this one.”

The dataset from this project is available to all researchers interested in conducting follow-up studies.

“Insights from the first stage of analyzing this data were about global messaging campaign strategies,” says Moller. “Follow-up research could examine the many different dimensions along which cultures vary. Researchers interested in one or more aspects of culture can now drill down to see, with more nuance, whether in a particular culture messaging was more or less effective. We hope to continue to develop this research to help control COVID and future pandemics.


Illinois Institute of Technology

Journal reference:

Massy, ​​D. et al. (2022) A global experiment on motivating social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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