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Study Reveals Fear Encourages Physical Distancing During Pandemic

According to a new study, people can be persuaded to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines more effectively through messaging that highlights the dire consequences of not taking precautions

Study Reveals Fear Encourages Physical Distancing During Pandemic
  • Despite rising COVID-19 cases, many people do not comply with safety norms
  • Preventive messaging is more about playing with the human mind: Researchers
  • Preventive messaging can save lives, says expert

Washington: A recent study has identified two key messaging components, that is, negativity and anthropomorphism or attributing human characteristics to nonhuman objects, could improve the persuasiveness of those appeals and trigger compliance of the COVID-19 social distancing norm. The research was conducted by the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management and was published in The Service Industries Journal.

Also Read: “We Will Win This Fight Against COVID”: PM Modi On Mann Ki Baat

Adjusting the messaging to stress the negative health outcomes associated with not following physical distancing guidelines, including the possibility of severe sickness or death, could more effectively persuade consumers to comply, according to the study co-authored by UH associate professor Priyanko Guchait.

The study found that adding intimidating human attributes to the otherwise invisible coronavirus, such as a scary red face with long sharp teeth and tentacles, significantly strengthens that message.

We don’t know how the coronavirus looks because we can’t see it, so how can people be afraid of it? Giving it human characteristics and making it look scary strengthens the effect when combined with the negative messaging, said Professor Guchait.

The researchers applied the regulatory focus theory, a persuasion theory in the field of psychology which focuses on framing the information either negatively or positively. Based on a hypothetical supermarket scenario, survey respondents were presented with different physical distancing messages that either used preventive or promotive language – some included a “Mr Deadly COVID-19” scary face.

The preventive messaging emphasized potential costs and negative outcomes: If you don’t maintain physical distance, you could get infected and endanger your life. In contrast, promotive messaging highlighted potential benefits and positive outcomes: Maintaining physical distance protects you from infection and secures your life.

Preventive language was significantly more effective in this study because people are persuaded by loss language, especially in high-risk, health-related situations. It’s the same thing with traffic accidents where people follow the rules because they know they could die. They experience fear and that’s why they follow traffic rules, said Professor Guchait, who collaborated on the research with visiting scholar The Khoa Do and Chen-Ya Wang from National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan.

Also Read: COVID-19 Lockdown Reduced Sleep Quality, Mental Health, Says Study

Despite a consistent rise in coronavirus cases and deaths, many customers underestimate the importance of complying with physical distancing. A survey of grocery and food workers conducted by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union at the beginning of the pandemic last spring, found that up to 85 per cent of customers at grocery and retail stores did not practice physical distancing. Other surveys have revealed that people consistently underrate the risk of getting infected themselves or transmitting the virus to others.

The researchers hope the service industry will adapt and change how they frame and present physical distancing appeals, particularly small retail and grocery businesses which lack the resources to fully implement expensive health and safety interventions.

This is more about playing with the human mind, which we know is more impactful than actual devices such as partitions or physical barriers, said Professor Guchait. “We encourage stores to add the picture of a scary coronavirus along with preventive messaging because it could save them money but, more importantly, it could save lives.

Also Read: Chennai Sero Survey Results: Nearly One-Third Population Exposed To Coronavirus, What Does It Mean? Expert Explains

(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (WaterSanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollutionwaste managementplastic banmanual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene

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