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Ingredients of Social Behavior Change

From time to time, societies and the cultures they contain, exhibit large scale changes in behavior of their members. The process is often rather lengthy. It sometimes begins with scientific or academic findings of ill effects of current behaviors. For example, evidence linking smoking of tobacco to lung cancer probabilities began to converge in the 1950’s. The utility of seat belts to reduce automobile accident deaths was demonstrated in the 1940’s. The cause of HIV was discovered in 1983-4 and the link between bodily fluids and its transmission demonstrated.

From these initial studies came discoveries of linkages of human behaviors and harmful outcomes. Behaviors changed only slowly. Despite the 1950’s discoveries, tobacco use started declining in the US only in the 1970’s. The findings of seat belt utility in the 1950’s led to a national law mandating belts in cars only in 1966. The scientific discovery of the transmission of the HIV virus in the mid-1980’s has only incomplete effects on risky sexual and drug use behaviors in the US.

We are living in a period in which science is discovering how SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, is transmitted. The science suggests prevention methods, not unlike the experiences with smoking, seat belts, and HIV. However, the scientific findings have the complication that the SARS-CoV-2 virus doesn’t manifest symptoms of COVID-19 immediately. There is growing evidence of shedding the virus by asymptomatic people, spreading it to their immediate physical environment. Hence, face coverings and frequent hand cleansing guidelines are promoted.

In the US, wearing face coverings in public was never part of many of its subcultures. Washing one’s hands many times a day is practiced routinely only among health care deliverers. However, the impact of the virus is fast, broad, and deep, threatening to halt all major societal subsystems. With COVID-19, taking several decades to produce behavior change is imprudent. Fast moving threats can overtake slow moving social change.

But there is some science informing behavior change. Since prevention of the virus spread is inherently a social event, social science is relevant. What influences people to change their behavior in social groups?

There is a set of social and cognitive psychological literatures that inform that question. They have been incorporated into work by behavioral economists and marketing researchers. Work by Robert Cialdini (Georgetown honorary degree, 2017) informs much of it.

“Reciprocity” is the notion that acts of kindness, support, empathy by another person tend to generate similar acts on our part. Such reciprocity norms seem to exist in all cultures. Making salient that others are protecting me by their health-related behaviors may stimulate me to do the same for them. How do we make that salient?

“Consistency and commitment” together note that we tend to behave in ways that have commonalities over time – habits are real. Conscious acts often make salient a decision to behave in a certain way (e.g., signing a petition, supporting a pledge to behave in a certain way). Those acts appear to be catalysts for consistent behavior. The signing of the Georgetown University Community Compact (agreeing to follow a set of health behaviors) is likely to have an independent effect on compliance with the public health guidelines versus an oral agreement.

The notion of “social proof” seems especially powerful in behaviors relevant to the common good, like those we’re now facing. One way we decide what we ourselves should do is to observe what others “like us” are doing. The key is “like us.” Hence, making salient that others like you were not smoking made it easier to never smoke or quit smoking. In contrast, making more salient violators of the new social norm (e.g., highlighting those who defy the face covering guideline) threatens overestimates of noncompliance and hence social proof that the desired behavior is not being practiced. This is particularly challenging because news media tend to cover the bad news less than the good news. How can we communicate the vast levels of cooperation the Georgetown community is exhibiting?

A particularly strong form of social proof is when one fully identifies with a particular group (e.g., “I am an xxx” where “xxx” could be a race, gender, sexual identity, political identity, socioeconomic group) and observes that the group is committed to behaving in a specific way. To the extent the identity is a central self-image, the social proof principle is powerful. “If I’m really an “xxx,” and most all “xxx”’s are behaving in the new way, then I must also.” How do we communicate to different subgroups their own group’s cooperation with health guidelines?

“Liking” as a construct means that an other who is attractive to us has greater chance of influencing our behavior. This is illustrated by modern social media influencers greatly. Their followers admire them and thus more readily accept their behavioral guidance. We’ve recently seen public figures announcing their support for face covering usage, as an example of this. Should we identify popular Hoya alumni to communicate their encouragement to the Georgetown community to protect one another?

The wonderful observation about these principles is that we individually can utilize them to help the whole community protect its health. We have large scale social behavioral changes to promote over the coming weeks. There is scientific evidence we can use to guide us.

4 thoughts on “Ingredients of Social Behavior Change

  1. Back to Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development to cover all bases when motivating a change in social behavior:

    1. Obedience and punishment orientation
    (How can I avoid punishment?)
    2. Self-interest orientation
    (What’s in it for me?)
    (Paying for a benefit)
    3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
    (Social norms)
    (The good boy/girl attitude)
    4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
    (Law and order morality)
    5. Social contract orientation
    6. Universal ethical principles
    (Principled conscience)

  2. This is a thoughtful treatment of a most pertinent subject, Dr Groves. Beyond the perspective of preventive health, this analysis also describes the full dynamic between those forces of change and powers of social resistance which have recurrently interrupted significant change. Hopefully the current powers of change will finally move the eternal Sisyphean burden of racial justice over The top!

  3. here. Big work needed for social +-community support coming. Tobacco and seat belts took decades. HOYAS need to care for each other ASAP. with warp speed. God speed . Men and women really NEED to be for others now more than ever.

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