How to motivate people to follow restrictions: 13 principles for COVID-19 communication

January 04, 2021

An effective response to a pandemic like the COVID-19 will only be successful if people voluntarily follow the rules and guidelines of decision-makers and experts. Many of the required measures, such as avoiding social contact and significantly changing our daily habits require a strong commitment. Other necessary actions, such as regular hand washing, are often impossible to monitor and enforce. Adherence to the guidelines thus depends on people's personal commitment.

The ability of policy makers and experts to communicate convincingly to citizens has a strong influence on whether people voluntarily motivate themselves to change their behaviour and maintain new behaviours.

Based on a large body of existing research, four leading researchers of self-determination theory, Frank Martela (Aalto University), Nelli Hankonen (University of Helsinki), Richard M. Ryan (Australian Catholic University) and Maarten Vansteenkiste (Universiteit Gent) have crystallised European Review of Social Psychology.

'While the overall tone of politicians and officials on COVID-19 has been relatively calm and neutral in Finland, where I'm based, at times communication has not been very transparent. There also hasn't been enough clarity about the assessments and research on which the recommendations are based. This creates unnecessary rumors and counter-arguments,' says Frank Martela, a postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University.

'Different countries have had different strengths and weaknesses as regards their way of communicating. This checklist could help them to identify areas of improvements to increase public motivation to comply,' he adds.

'I'm not sure how widely citizens initially understood why, for example, asymptomatic people should use face masks. In order for people to make sensible choices in their daily lives, they need to understand the mechanisms of spreading and controlling the disease. In order to optimise communications, we would need up-to-date information on what are the most serious misunderstandings or concerns of citizens,' Assistant Professor Nelli Hankonen from the University of Helsinki says.

The 13 principles of communication that the researchers have crystallised are based on self-determination theory, a widely studied and applied theory of the human motivation and its social determinants. Hundreds of empirical studies from different areas of life, from health care to working life, have shown that supporting autonomy is essential to getting people to voluntarily commit to guidelines. The communication principles developed within the theory have been shown to provide tangible health-related outcomes in, for example, diabetes prevention, tobacco cessation and long-term medication adherence.

The communication guidelines developed by the research team are structured around how they support the three human psychological needs: autonomy (a sense of volition and self-endorsement), competence (a sense of effectiveness and mastery), and relatedness (a sense of mutual care and interpersonal connection). In particular, experts and decision-makers should make sure that their way of communication doesn't awaken defiance. While many of the guidelines have not been directly tested in policy communication contexts, they are based on currently available evidence from other domains and, as such, likely to have positive effects on motivation.
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Aalto University

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