The behavioural science principles seen during COVID-19 and their meaning for marketers

April 29, 2020
Matthew Hellon
Research Executive

There’s been lots of focus on behavioural science’s role in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak. The UK government reconvened a task force originally set up during the ‘swine flu’ pandemic known as SPI-B&C (now SPI-B). Their job is to provide expert opinion on how to best:

• use insights from behavioural science to slow the virus’s spread;

• communicate advice to the general public, especially those who are told to self-isolate.

As well as advice on how to stop COVID-19 spreading, behavioural science insights can be used to explain the human behaviour we’ve seen throughout this global pandemic. Three behavioural science principles – psychological reactance, false scarcity and social norms – can explain some of the key behaviours witnessed since the COVID-19 outbreak. But these aren’t just theoretical ideas. They all have consequences for marketers.

Psychological reactance

Psychological reactance is the psychological response when one perceives one’s freedom to be threatened. It often leads to the exact opposite behaviour that was intended by those giving the instructions. We saw this with US college students heading to spring break in Miami. Having been told to stay indoors to protect lives, many still proceeded to the beach, gathering in large crowds. Their freedom (the ability to party) had been threatened by their government. The result was they behaved in the exact opposite way to what the government wanted.

Examples from the UK include a caller to BBC Radio Solent who explained that it was fine for them to visit elderly relatives and shop for non-essentials despite government instructions stating otherwise. Snowdonia in Wales, meanwhile, experienced “its busiest-ever visitor day in living memory”, making it impossible to maintain effective social distancing – this just a day after the Prime Minister called for pubs and restaurants to close.

Some of this may be down to a mistrust of government advice (a sign of wider political discontent), but psychological reactance has certainly played a role in those breaking the new quarantine rules under which much of the world now lives.

Brand takeaway: Communications are as important now as they ever have been. Preventing the spread of COVID-19 comes down to effectively communicating what’s needed of the general public. Brand communications’ susceptibility to physiological reactance is no different. Food retailers – the brands who are currently engaging with consumers the most – are asking people to behave in specific ways while shopping (e.g. keeping 2m away from others and limiting the number of certain products an individual can buy). These must be communicated and enforced effectively to prevent psychological reactance.

False scarcity

On March 23, the UK government essentially shut down the country, closing all non-essential shops and only allowing people to leave their homes for very specific reasons, e.g. purchasing food or medicine. Outside exercise is also among these reasons – e.g. running or cycling – but is limited to once per day.

This has had an interesting effect. Following the announcement, you may have been asked: “have you been for your daily walk/run yet?”. Limiting how many times people can leave their house for exercise, even if that number is one, may lead to more people leaving their home. When everyone should be staying inside as much as possible, we’ve been anchored to leave the house once a day.

This may be detrimental when trying to completely cease person-to-person encounters but may not be a bad thing for public health in the long run. People who wouldn’t have exercised at all now might be going for their daily walk; a habit that may stick when the virus is not front-page news.

Brand takeaway: Biases related to scarcity have long been used by marketers – its most obvious application is communicating that a limited amount of a product remains in order to drive demand. This is known as scarcity bias. False scarcity, however, is about artificially placing a number on the amount of product a person can buy. Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive, this can increase sales, especially if the artificial number is higher than the average number of products usually purchased in one go.

Social norms

A familiar sight throughout the global pandemic has been empty shop shelves as people panic buy toilet paper and hand sanitiser. Humans tend to follow what others do and create social norms through copying other’s behaviour. Images of empty shop shelves on news sites and social media create a powerful social norm: everyone is panic buying toilet paper, and thus so should I.

Nintendo utilised social norms and scarcity when it launched the Wii gaming console. Nintendo struggled to meet demand leading to significant stock shortages. Whilst Nintendo denied it was artificially creating stock shortages, reports that the Wii was hard to find drove increased demand.

Seeing toilet paper on the shelves (after seeing many images of empty toilet paper aisles) creates a desire to buy now – otherwise they’ll be gone. Anyone that saw a Wii on shelves in 2006 had to buy one, not necessarily because they wanted to play tennis with the flick of their wrist, but if they didn’t, someone else would buy it. Instead of the Nintendo Wii, this kind of behaviour is being played out with a different kind of Wii.

Brand takeaway: Social norms have never been more powerful. Even for brands. This is evident by how Joe Wicks is enhancing his personal brand by making his PE lessons the norm during lockdown. If a brand can align itself with a positive norm in the current climate, it’s reach will increase exponentially. At little cost.

At a time when attitudes are changing daily, behaviours are more important than ever before. For marketers, it’s important to accurately explain past behaviour (e.g. psychological reactance, false scarcity, social norms etc.) so it can be better understood and predicted in the future. Marketing is fundamentally a behaviour business and should always aim to understand what really drives human behaviour.

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