Skip to main content

Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

How to persuade people to stay home: A century of social science research offers clues on human behavior

With social distancing and shelter-in-place mandates in effect worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic is necessitating large-scale behavior change and taking a significant psychological toll. How can leaders and the media promote cooperative behavior? What kind of messages work best? Northwestern University professor of political science Dr. Jamie Druckman and University of Cambridge social psychology professor Dr. Sander van der Linden addressed these questions and more in a Northwestern Buffett webinar this week, drawing on a century of social science research that sheds light on how to better align human behavior with public health officials’ recommendations. Here are six key takeaways:

Quite a bit has changed since the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, but human behavior has not. A paper published in Science magazine in 1919 illuminated the factors that stood in the way of preventing the spread of the Spanish flu of 1918, and these remain critical challenges today, Dr. Druckman said. “People do not appreciate the risks they run,” he said. “It goes against human nature for people to shut themselves up in rigid isolation as a means of protecting others, and people often unconsciously act as a continuing danger to themselves and others.”

“Loose” cultures have seen steeper COVID-19 curves than “tight” ones: Efficient governments and “tight cultures” can help mitigate the risk of people acting against their best interests, Druckman said. Countries with stronger stay-at-home orders and less heterogeneity in terms of their response to COVID-19 have seen their curves flatten faster. Yet what a “tight culture” looks like can vary significantly across the globe. Countries like Sweden that appear laissez faire in their response to COVID-19 have relatively small populations and health care systems that are considered well-equipped to deal with the projected number of COVID-19 cases, Dr. van der Linden noted.

Data also suggests a correlation between strong public understanding of a government’s response to COVID-19 and fewer COVID-19 cases, Druckman said. Germany is one example: “The German public has a stronger understanding of its government’s response to COVID-19, and we see a lower rate of infection and lower death toll there,” he noted.

Unfortunately, the American public doesn’t have as strong an understanding of the U.S. government’s response to COVID-19 and this, coupled with a “looser” culture, has contributed to a steeper rise in COVID-19 cases, Druckman noted. “The U.S. was uniquely bad in terms of the rate at which it surpassed 500 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The government didn’t act quickly enough to flatten the curve,” he said.  In the absence of tightly coordinated U.S. federal government measures, the private sector has stepped in and far outside of its comfort zone: New Balance is producing hypebeast grade masks, General Motors and other auto manufacturers are producing ventilators, and the New England Patriots are flying N95 masks in on their private planes, to name a few examples.

Compliance largely depends on unity and credibility: Persuading the public to comply with stay-at-home orders and other social distancing recommendations depends, in large part, on cohesion: “Bipartisan messages are crucial in the U.S.,” Druckman said. “This is clear from the research not only on COVID-19 but a whole host of other issues. Bipartisan messages are much more persuasive.” It can be difficult to see common ground, however, amid the abundance of headlines claiming wild variation in compliance with public health recommendations among Democrats and Republicans. Druckman urges people to view these headlines with skepticism: It can be easy, yet misleading, to paint a picture of COVID-19 along partisan lines, he said. Counties with a more republican vote have exhibited less social distancing behavior, but many of these counties are in rural areas that require less extreme social distancing measures to begin with.

In terms of specific messages, evidence suggests those that have been most effective in persuading people to adhere to social distancing guidelines are those that “urge people to act for the common good, highlight the story of a specific—and young—victim, and explain the dynamics of virality,” Druckman said, pointing to this example: “On average, each person passes the coronavirus on to two to three people. If you break a chain of transmission, you can single-handedly prevent the suffering of potentially dozens of people.” The source of the message is also important, Druckman added, noting messages from local officials can be more effective, given “you can imagine they’re experiencing exactly what you’re experiencing, and that enhances the credibility of the message.” 

The words we use matter: “Social distancing” needs to be distinguished from physical distancing as we are in the midst of “a perfect storm for a mental health crisis,” an uptick in domestic violence and ethnic scapegoating that makes strong social support networks critical, even if activated at a distance, Druckman said. “There is also an optimal level of fear,” he noted. Inducing too much of it can have a paralyzing effect. “Worry” tends to motivate more productive responses in times of crisis over “fear.” Collective terms, such as “us,” also tend to bring out the best in us, Druckman said. “It builds a shared sense of identity” and encourages people to act for the common good.

Preventing the spread of fake news means becoming more attuned to it: Druckman talked about the importance of separating science from science fiction, pointing to a recently published article recommending people stay at least six feet away from each other when biking, walking, or running outside. The article, published on Medium, has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal and, as New York Times reporter Gretchen Reynolds pointed out, “the study did not look at coronavirus particles specifically or how they are carried in respiratory droplets in real-life conditions. Nor does it prove or even suggest that infection risks rise if you do wind up temporarily strolling behind a panting runner.” Medium posted a disclaimer at the top of this article—“Anyone can publish on Medium per our Policies, but we don’t fact-check every story. For more info about the coronavirus, see” Likewise, YouTube includes a note under COVID-19 related video posts like this one from, encouraging users to “get the latest information from the CDC about COVID-19,” van der Linden noted. “However this may suggest the video is, in fact, from the CDC,” he added. Our eyes often miss or misinterpret disclaimers like this and “we need to test these things.”

Research suggests a promising path toward inoculation against misinformation:  Drawing from Inoculation Theory, van der Linden and other scholars are developing techniques and interventions designed to strengthen citizens’ immunity to fake news. “Injecting people with weakened doses of fake news can help to build up their mental antibodies and resistance to future misinformation,” van der Linden said. The good news is data shows people gravitating back toward major news networks, such as ABC, NBC, and CBS in the U.S., that tend to present more balanced and credible information compared to what people find in social media “echo chambers,” Druckman added.

Ultimately, there are some simple things we can all do to build up our own immunity to and curb the spread of misinformation, including looking for warnings on questionable content and pausing to confirm questionable content before sharing it. Time is certainly of the essence in times of crisis, Druckman said, but cautioned, “If you hurry too much, you might not be taking the right actions.”