Commentary / World

Coronavirus safety can be fun

by Cass R. Sunstein

Bloomberg

To address the coronavirus pandemic, it’s essential to influence human behavior; to promote social distancing, to get people to wear masks, to encourage people to stay home. Many nations have imposed mandates as well. But to enforce the mandates and to promote safer choices as the mandates wind down, people have to be nudged.

To organize current and coming efforts, a simple framework can be captured in an acronym: FEAST. The idea begins with the EAST framework from the Behavioural Insights Team in the United Kingdom, which deserves to be better known.

EAST refers to four ideas: easy, attractive, social and timely.

If you want people to do something, make it easy for them. They have to know what to do and how to do it, and it should not be too burdensome, painful or costly. Automatic enrollment — for example, in savings plans or green energy — significantly increases participation rates because it is so easy.

Whenever the goal is to change behavior, the best question is easy to overlook: Why aren’t people doing it already? After getting the answer, public officials, employers, schools and others can take steps to remove the barrier.

It matters whether an option or message is attractive. A simple and vivid communication has more impact than a dull and complicated one. With respect to COVID-19, officials in Ireland have made excellent use of this insight with striking informational signs. The same is true of New Zealand.

People tend to be affected by what other people do; hence the S for social in EAST. If people learn that they are conserving less energy than other people, they start to conserve more energy. Publicizing a current norm or an emerging norm can greatly alter behavior. New Zealand’s "Unite Against COVID-19” message is brilliant on that count.

Timing is everything. Often it’s best to provide people with information (including warnings) right before they make a decision, not the night before or when their minds are focused elsewhere. As nations relax stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns, health-related messages should be arranged so that people see them immediately before they make health-related choices.

For policymakers all over the world, EAST has proven useful. But it’s missing something essential: Fun. Hence my modest, evidence-based amendment, adding the F for FEAST.

How do you encourage people to eat more vegetables? A Stanford University study tried two different methods. The first involved labels that emphasized health benefits. The second used labels that emphasized enjoyment and taste.

Both worked, but enjoyment proved to be the more powerful motivator. The health-focused labels increased vegetable consumption by 14 percent, which is pretty good. The enjoyment-focused labels increased vegetable consumption by 29 percent, which is terrific.

Savvy marketers are keenly aware of the importance of enjoyment and fun. For example, Amazon sells certain products with what it calls "Frustration-Free Packaging.” That means that there isn’t much in the way of plastic, wiring or cardboard to deal with. Better still, Frustration-Free Packaging also turns out to be Green Packaging; it contains less solid waste, and the materials are recyclable. The company is making a smart behavioral bet, which is that the idea of Frustration-Free Packaging will make customers smile — and attract a lot more of them than would be motivated by the idea of sustainability.

A pandemic isn’t fun. But leaders can produce a sense of optimism, unity, hope and more than a few smiles instead of despair, anger, division and fear. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand even managed to have some fun with the lockdown, describing the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny as "essential workers,” legally authorized to carry on their work.

In general, New Zealand has succeeded in meeting the pandemic not only with firmness, calm and determination but also with wit, a call to unity (emphasizing that the nation is "a team of 5 million”) and a consistent sense of good cheer. Its mantra has been, "Be kind.”

For COVID-19, the most important parts of the FEAST framework are the E for easy and the S for social. Complexity and confusion are mortal enemies of public health; good norms are its best friends.

But here’s a plea to leaders at all levels, even in dark times: Do not neglect the F. Human beings need it.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

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