Countless generals and management gurus have pontificated about how to organize armies and businesses. Some of them have even suggested ways to instruct their armies, be they corporate or military. These rules have broadly seeped into common practice regarding managing groups of all sizes. Sadly, these rules were not made for lay citizens — organizational structures and power hierarchies differ, and their rules need not apply.
Getting the public to follow instructions is not easy. This is even more apparent during the COVID-19 crisis, be it at home, work, in towns, cities, and/or countries. We need an updated social instruction list for the COVID-19 era, and behavioral science can help us. Here is a checklist for creating improved social instructions:
1. Specific and actionable
Specificity on what behaviors to take up — and why these actions are important — can promote good decision making. For example, research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that when specific and personalized price information on the cost of prescriptions were provided to customers, their likelihood of switching plans increased and annual consumer costs decreased.1
Similarly, during the initial days of the COVID-19 crisis, specific and actionable instructions might have reduced the spread of the virus and saved lives — instructing people to wash their hands for two minutes every two hours, or explicitly suggesting handshakes be replaced with fist-bumps, may have been more effective than just suggesting people stop shaking hands.2
2. Easy to follow
To suggest that instructions ought to be easy to follow almost seems tautological. However, simplicity and easiness may be difficult to achieve. Instructing everyone to maintain a six feet gap from others around them may not be easy to follow despite the relative simplicity of the task. Picture a densely populated country, city, slum, or even people living in high-rises. While those living in these conditions may fully understand the importance of keeping distance, the realities of their living conditions might make it difficult for them to follow social distancing. Instructions that are impossible to follow may actually cause stress, and the ‘effort overload’ does not help.3
Further, economic stress and job loss and other challenges posed by the virus have caused enormous mental strain, and our health systems have not been able to cope. Expecting ordinary acceptance of instructions in extraordinary times may be a little harsh. The solution lies in a better understanding of how to tailor instructions to different groups of people.
In their groundbreaking study in 1979, Tversky and Kahnemann, two pioneers of behavioral science, showed that the description of situations or choices affect the actions that we take. Policymakers and marketing gurus alike have used this principle, named ‘framing’, to great effect.4,5 This type of human behavior forms the basis for prospect theory, which says that a loss is perceived as more significant, and therefore more worthy of avoiding, than an equivalent gain.
Similarly, using different wordings, settings, and situations can generate markedly different levels of adherence to instructions. People are more likely to follow instructions that urge them to do something that is 95% successful rather than something that is ‘just’ 5% unsuccessful.
4. Easy to comprehend
Cognitive overload theory (COT), a concept from instruction design that explains how the cognitive load produced by learning tasks can impede one’s ability to process new information and to create long-term memories, can be applied towards designing effective instructions. According to COT, when faced with new information or instruction, our comprehension is a function, in part, of the effort exerted by the individual in understanding (intrinsic load), and the way information or tasks are presented.6
While it is true that we may never find the perfect instruction delivery mechanism, be it through a news bulletin, a presidential address, pamphlets, or a combination of several potential mediums, the aim must be to increase ease of recall. Of course, compliance can be a result of both conscious recalls of instructions or a result of a habit, much like following instructions while learning to drive.