Despite hopes, prayers, and efforts to keep the COVID-19 coronavirus from spreading from China, it’s here.
Public health officials and epidemiologists (scientists that study disease control and spread) want us to take preventative actions to reduce the possible spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. They tell us to go home and stay home as soon as we feel even a little bit sick. We should wash our hands frequently and properly (at least 20 seconds), cough into our sleeves, clean often-touched objects and surfaces frequently. Because the virus gains hold in our eyes, nose, or mouth, we are told not to touch our faces (no picking, scratching, biting, rubbing). Just in case COVID-19 becomes widespread, they want us to prepare to be home for a while and to stop buying up facemasks, which may prevent a shortage for frontline health professionals who most need them.
But to motivate our preventative health actions, the media, and government, and public health officials and entities, have to use fearstrategically. When it comes to motivating the preventative behaviors that may reduce our own and others’ health risks, too much or too little fear is ineffective.
Using fear to scare people into behavior change is a common tactic, used by parents and loved ones, religious leaders, healthcare professionals, advertisers, and politicians alike. As a persuasive tactic, fear-arousing communications have been studied by social psychologists since the 1950s. These decades of research on fear and health communications tell us a lot about the effective use of fear to motivate health behavior.
We know that if the level of fear is too frightening, people may:
- Shut down in helplessness, believing their actions will be ineffective in reducing the threat
- Fail to act due to defensive denial, that is, willfully denying a threat to maintain a sense of safety and control
- Find the threat unbelievable and be unmotivated to take preventative action
- Have difficulty responding rationally and may overreact
- Downplay future “threats” and distrust government sources if dire warnings fail to materialize
But we also know that if the level of fear is too low, people are unmotivated to take the preventative health actions that might reduce disease spread. This can happen when a government underplays a public health threat because they don’t want people to panic, the economy to suffer, or to draw attention to policies or missteps that, in retrospect, reduced preparedness or made things worse. This can contribute to disease spread and undermine their credibility as a source of public health information.
The bottom line: Getting fear “right” is challenging. To motivate desired health behaviors, the threat has to be scary enough to motivate, yet realistic. People have to believe it could affect them, and they also have to believe that the recommended actions will reduce the threat. Politics have to be put aside for the sake of public health so as not to overplay, or underplay, the health threat. (Brief aside: Citizens must also put politics aside to rationally assess the threat and take important risk-reduction actions.)
Health communications research indicates that effective public health message framing may depend on the perceived costs of the recommended preventative action. When the costs and risks of the recommended behavior are low, gain-framed messages (ones that emphasize what is to be gained from adopting a preventative action) are more effective than loss-framed messages. Conversely, if carrying out the promoted health behavior requires risk, loss-framed messages are more effective.
While it’s true there’s no need to panic, that doesn’t mean we should be unconcerned and fail to adopt risk-reduction behaviors. The threat of danger is real enough and the recommended COVID-19 preventative health behaviors are simple and low cost enough that we should adopt them. Epidemiological science indicates that these preventative behaviors can reduce our own and others’ risk of unpleasant illness from COVID-19, the flu, and the common cold. We can possibly save the lives of others for whom these viruses are more likely to be fatal. And if that’s not enough, widespread preventative action could reduce the spread and severity of COVID-19 and reduce its negative economic impacts.