Blog post

Could current Covid messaging be counter­productive?

Dr Frances Maratos, Associate Professor and Reader in Emotion Science at the University of Derby, worked with two further psychology academics and Matt Hawkins from the think-tank Compassion In Politics to produce an open letter to the government, arguing that efforts to ensure public compliance with anti-Covid measures through blame and fear-based messages could backfire.

By Professor Frances Maratos - 23 September 2020

The letter, signed by over 50 academic and practising psychologists, has been featured in the Daily Mail. In this new blog, she explains in more detail why she and her peers are so concerned about this approach.

At present, it appears that one key messaging tactic the government has been using is to apportion blame of the spread of Covid-19 on young people.

This type of 'them and us' messaging is divisive. A history of psychological research tells us that creating 'in-groups' and 'out-groups' is not productive for society and can result in ill-founded prejudices and in-group favouritism.

For example, a young person is diagnosed with Covid-19 and we then automatically assume it must be because they have not been following government guidelines. However, could it also be that the young are more likely to test positive, not because of factors associated with socialising, but also because younger individuals, as compared to older individuals, are more reliant on public transport? Or, because they are three times more likely to be employed in the hospitality and recreation sectors, for which the public have been encouraged to re-engage with over the summer?

Reducing empathy through fear

Added to this, young people now also have the stigma of being 'Covid spreaders'. This fear messaging and branding is unhelpful, as my colleague Manuela Barreto has argued in the letter.

Indeed, her research has revealed that fear pushes us to derogate others, whether they constitute a threat or not1. Additionally, this fear is sufficient to reduce empathy and pro-social behaviour towards individuals, but, crucially, only those individuals who are not within our group (in this case the young).

So, the messaging we are using will result in behaviour change, but is it the change envisioned? Do we really want to alienate our youth, be less empathetic and shame and blame them? Or do we want to empower them and make them part of the solution?

The former may result in disengagement/withdrawal behaviours, whereas what we need from our youth is 'approach' behaviours where they feel motivated to engage.

For example, 'Social distancing is everybody's responsibility' is a non-divisive message, but one that allows all to take personal responsibility for this simple behaviour change.

A second important aspect of our letter to government was the focus on emotive messaging and the argument that the 'perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased... using hard-hitting emotional messaging'.

Considering the long-term effects

Importantly, while fear is an extremely powerful motivator, we know from studies of the aftermath of previous epidemics that fear messaging isn't an optimal solution for behaviour change, especially when considering its long-term effects.

For example, Ebola risk-elevating messages increased public anxiety, with messages delivered via media exacerbating stress and worry2.

The ramifications of this include, for some, poor mental health that can persist long-after fear-based messaging campaigns have ceased. What the government has failed to grasp is why fear messaging is so effective, including its potential long-term behaviour change consequences.

To expand, in the 1980s, the psychologist Susan Mineka and colleagues conducted a series of experiments into fear learning3.

In a nutshell, they provided baby rhesus monkeys with different types of toys to view, such as a bunch of flowers or realistic toy snakes, with food rewards nearby.

Deprived of any parental input/learning, the baby monkeys displayed no fear of either types of toy and reached for the food reward.

Next, the baby monkeys were shown videos of an adult monkey demonstrating a fear response to the flowers and a fear response to the snake.

On re-introducing the toys to the baby monkeys, and of key importance, Mineka et al. observed they had selectively learned to fear the snake... but, interestingly, not the flowers.

Moreover, the fear response to the toy snake was persistent and very difficult to extinguish.

What this research shows us is that evolution has provided us with a mechanism to very easily learn certain types of fear/threat responses, especially to real ancestral threats.

Disease is one such threat, so while hard-hitting emotional messaging will work, for some they will work too well, potentially leading to generalised anxiety (and phobias) that could well long outlive the pandemic, and the reason why we suggest more stratified targeted messaging is needed.

1Incidental fear reduces empathy for an out-group’s pain, Richins, MT; Barreto, M; Karl, A; et al., University of Exeter, January 2020

2Distress, Worry, and Functioning Following a Global Health Crisis: A National Study of Americans’ Responses to Ebola, Rebecca R. Thompson, Dana Rose Garfin, E. Alison Holman, Roxanne Cohen Silver, Clinical Psychology Science, April 2017

Media Messages and Perception of Risk for Ebola Virus Infection, United States, Tara Kirk Sell, Crystal Boddie, Emma E. McGinty, Keshia Pollack, Katherine Clegg Smith, Thomas A. Burke, and Lainie Rutkow, National Center for Biotechnology Information, January 2017

3Observational Conditioning of Snake Fear in Rhesus Monkeys, Susan Mineka, Mark Davidson, Michael Cook, and Richard Keir, Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1984, Vol 93, No 4

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About the author

Academic Frances Maratos, smiling.

Professor Frances Maratos
Professor of Psychology and Affective Science

Frances Maratos’ research informs applied emotion regulation, compassion and wellbeing interventions worldwide. She is widely published and has excellent grant capture. Frances is the exiting Chair of the College of HPSC Research Committee. Her Professorial appointment reflects not only her international research profile but also her longstanding commitment to the University.

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