Results from a global experiment on social distancing during times of COVID-19 published

Published on June 9, 2022 – During the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of ACHC researchers shifted the focus of (part of) their work towards understanding and promoting health behaviour through effective communication about COVID-19  – see also here. Our vice-chair and secretary Eline Smit also devoted some of her time towards COVID-19 related research; her newest publication was just published in the prestigious journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). In this paper, the results of a global experiment on social distancing – to which many scholars from around the world contributed – are described. 

Communicating in ways that motivate the intention to engage in social distancing remains a critical global public health priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. This study tested motivational qualities of messages about social distancing: autonomy-supportive (i.e., those that promoted choice and agency) vs. controlling messages (i.e., those that were forceful and shaming) in 25,718 people in 89 countries. The autonomy-supportive message decreased feelings of defying social distancing recommendations relative to the controlling message. The controlling message increased controlled motivation, a more extrinsic form of motivation that is usually less effective in influencing behaviour, relative to no message. Message type did not impact intentions to socially distance, but people’s existing motivations to socially distance were related to their intention to socially distance. Findings were generalizable across a geographically diverse sample and highlight the potential harm of using shaming and pressuring language in public health communication, with implications for the current and future global health challenges.

The full paper can be found here (open access).