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Using a behavioural science approach to curb the COVID-19 spread

07 April 2021 INSETA

COVID-19 is a pandemic whose origination, treatment and vaccination remains unknown. As coronavirus opportunistically spreads from human-to-humans the only known methods to prevent the transmission are physical distancing, not touching your mouth and face, wearing of facemasks and frequent hand washing or sanitizing of.

As we live through level 3 lockdown, our leaders continually implore that it is our behaviour that will ultimately aid or diminish the spread.

Why not touch our face? We constantly touch surfaces contaminated with pathogens such as coronavirus which are picked by our hands. These pathogens enter our body through mucous membranes on our face providing the pathways to our throat and lungs. Face touching is an action which crosses all cultures.

What method or technique can we use to stop this, how long will this take and are there any implementation suggestions? The touching of the face is a difficult human behaviour to change. A 2015 study cited in the American Journal of Infection Control, showed that people, on average, touch their faces 20 times an hour.

As the InSeta Research Chair I remind that our sector is a leader in operationalizing behavioural science theories such as the Nudge Theory. The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) a part of the British cabinet made some interesting suggestions to help influence each other’s behaviour using Nudge theory which may be deployed. The Nudge theory won the Nobel prize for its creator Richard Thales who I recommend and remain an avowed devotee off.

Does Nudge work? Nudge Theory is already being used by governments to inculcate better habits – through subtle nudges through praise, reward or embarrassment as opposed to force or threat. If enough people do something, one feels guilty or odd if one does not conform. Now we have the what.

The literature suggests that the behavioural change, is often, though not always, successful. Think smoking. It usually takes between 21 days and 66 days to change a habit. Maxwell Maltz a 1950’s plastic surgeon with profound noticed the intriguing pattern that it took his patient about 21 days to get used to seeing their new post-operative faces. Phillippa Lally, led a systematic 2009 study and determined that it took at least 66 days for a new habit forming or breaking behavior become automatic.

The touching of the face is a human habit that therefore requires other means to persuade behavioural change. Face shields are probably the most obvious. However, these are unwieldly, require sanitization and make working difficult and reports describe people who diligently wear masks only to remove them for a quick rub.

The BIT suggested that habits changing may also be reinforced through creating and adding alternative "habitual actions” to stop or greatly reduce hand-or-mouth touching. This includes drumming fingers on legs, playing with a substitute object such as squeezing a stress ball.

Another suggestion to use in groups or families is to ask associates to shout "face" or something else every time they’re about to reach up for a quick touch or rub. A second one is to fold your arms in a locked position and grabbing your biceps to avoid the hands slipping free and heading upwards.

I add the third which is that we start putting our hands in our pockets as winter emerges. To use our computers hands-free, try experimenting with Virtual Assistants such as Siri, Cortana, Alexa or Google Assistant. It is quite rewarding and you, being at home, will not disturb anyone!

This can be a cheap highly effective method to make a meaningful impact. Let’s try it.

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