The “unprecedented new normal”
It would be safe to say you’ve been on a successful digital detox if you haven’t seen at least one of the following in the past week:
- The Google trends image about how search trends for the word “unprecedented” have been unprecedented
- An article about the “new normal” and how consumer behavior will change
- An easy-to-make sourdough recipe
Unfortunately, we have not yet seen the end of these trends. For many months (or perhaps even a couple of years to come), we will all be discussing this “unprecedented” twist our lives have taken and how we’re dealing with our new normal.
Never before in our lives have organizations and governments had to respond in such short notices to changes taking place around them. And they will have to continue doing so over the next few months by informing us about changes to their services, reminding us about safety measures we should adhere to, and ensuring that the inconveniences we might face are for our own good.
Arguably, none of these are easy to communicate — but understanding how people perceive risks and the psychology behind how people react in these situations can help us create a more effective communication framework.
How we perceive risk
Social scientists and psychologists have been fascinated with risk perception for the longest time. The Extended Parallel Processing Model gives one framework that describes our range of responses to risk.¹ To put it simply, this model explains the process that helps people assess a message about a given risk. When a message is received, people evaluate it at two levels:
- The perceived threat of the risk: This is derived from how severe the risk is perceived and how susceptible one feels to the risk.
- The perceived efficacy: This has two parts – how one feels about their ability to respond to the threat and how effective that response will be.
As shown in the framework, a low perceived threat would lead to no reaction. A high perceived threat, coupled with a low perceived efficacy, would lead to “fear control,” which often results in the message being ignored. An example of this would be the horrifying stories of people going on spring break holidays, in defiance of recommendations from health officials. The perceived threat of the risk here is high because stories of rising cases are plentiful. The simple idea of staying at home might seem difficult and ineffective for a young person in college living life to the fullest around friends. This idea leads to a “defensive motivation” approach —“I would rather just ignore this threat and enjoy my spring break.”
A high perceived threat, with a high perceived efficacy, would lead to “protection”, where the individual does everything in their power to control the situation by following precautions. For instance, wearing a mask or maintaining physical distance. In this case, the threat appraisal is high, but people believe in their ability to control the risk with small steps such as wearing a mask, and hence, put themselves in the “protective motivation” approach.
While this is easier said than done, communications do play an essential role in this assessment. Whether someone reacts with fear or anxiety (or does not react at all) could be driven by how risk and coping mechanisms are communicated to them.
Framework for Communication:
Based on behavioral science concepts, here are some ways to communicate better during the pandemic. This is not an exhaustive list, but a good starting point to analyze communications.
1. Transparency: Some of the most intense discussions around COVID-19 have been around false information. One golden rule of communication is that if you don’t communicate, people will assume. And when people assume—especially when they are in fear—they will only assume the worst. It is thus essential that businesses and governments are open and transparent about facts. For example, the Government of Singapore has received praise from the WHO² for its transparent information sharing through Whatsapp and Telegram.³ By doing so early in the crisis, the government built trust, which allowed them to communicate sensitive messages more effectively.
Presenting the right information in the right way also lets the receiver perceive the risk more appropriately. For instance, using the flu as a reference turned out to be a poor way of getting people to appraise the risk of COVID-19 because the flu is a known and smaller risk.
In the next few months, people may need convincing when it is time to return to normal; and in this time, information and transparency can play a critical role. If Chinese food delivery apps are anything to go by, this indeed is true. From showing the temperature of the delivery person on the app to giving people factual information when a case surfaces in the service industry, businesses must be prepared to be truthful.
2. Shared Values: It’s an understatement to say that our generation has never before faced an existential threat like COVID-19. And threats like these that are as impactful to all of humanity can lead people to have feelings of collective angst.⁶ This can result in good, such as when people have feelings of selflessness in which they wish to do everything they can to help society. It can also lead to negative consequences, as we saw with the case of panic buying.⁶ To channel this emotion the right way, businesses and governments need to bring up shared identity, so that the risk of an existential threat is seen as something people can cope with.⁷
Shared identity here refers to a sense of connection people feel to each other through shared experiences, interests, or even common sufferings. While the shared experience of being in a pandemic may be strong enough to evoke the feeling of being connected as many of us move on without getting infected, this shared value may be insufficient alone. Getting people to act in the interest of the whole group’s safety might prove to be even more challenging in such a scenario. Communication will then play a crucial role by reminding people of a shared identity when it does not exist.