How Behavioral Science Applied to Public Perception of Risk can Help Mitigate the Covid-19 Crisis

mitigate covid-19

Covid -19 has been announced as a crisis. A pandemic that has resulted in directives to social/physical distance, hand wash/sanitise, stay home, and movement control to manage the spread of the disease. This has raised debate of the practicality of the directives in a nation where 80%+  individuals are in the informal sector with varying resource constraints.


covid-19: social distancing, wash hands, keep surfaces cleanA quick glance into our social media platforms and you will find phrases like “The probability of Covid-19 versus the certainty of hunger”, “Food of six feet under” depicting the contrasting risk perceptions and adherence acceptance in our communities. The understanding of the overall risk perceptions of individuals and households is paramount in promoting desired behaviour to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Balancing the scales – How Behavioral Science applied to public perception of risk can help mitigate the Covid-19 crisis

Human psychology determines how we behave and deal with uncertainty. People differ in coping with uncertainty. The personality trait of – intolerance of uncertainty – influences how we process circumstances. For individuals with a higher score, in this personality trait, tend to be chronic worriers and can for example easily relate every cough as Covid -19. This is linked to the – availability heuristic  –  a thinking shortcut where you tend to judge the probability of something by how easy it comes to mind.

Author – Wairimu Muthike
Wairimu is a Partnerships Director at Busara Center for Behavioral Economics.

A potential tool to influence our communities’ response to the current events include harnessing of behaviour science. Understanding the factors that influence human behaviour allow for the identification of barriers preventing the desired behaviours and levers that can support the introduction and continued substance of a desired behaviour.

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When applied to communication, behaviour science informs the language we use to frame our current circumstances. This influences not just what is said but what is heard. When we hear – Do Not Panic – this proves to be counter productive as it suggested that other people are panicking and we should start panicking too. Instead data supports that it is more effective to provide facts, both good and difficult, and provide clear instructions of what action is to be taken.


The Covid -19 pandemic is viewed as unique from any other pandemic we have faced in the past. This is attributed to the fact that we are more electronically connected now as a society than we have ever been in past pandemics. With social and communication platforms, accessible to individuals of different socio-economic and geographic locations. This reinforces that we are – Alone but Together-. On the flip side, we are constantly exposed to images and news of Covid-19, some of which is sensational. This coupled by uncertainty around the pandemic results in psychology fear. Using effective communication encourages individuals to slow down their process in accepting information from any source allowing for information immunity.


With increased connectivity and access to information, our current situation has resulted in an emergence of a shared identity within our communities. This can be observed in the increased altruism exhibited by communities pulling together to provide food and other supplies to vulnerable households to hedge their risks.

Behaviour science designs interventions to building on such social/communal commitment and concern. These tools are called nudges, and can be an effective tool to enforce desired behaviour. An example is where social/community sanctions are applied in curbing the free rider problem (individuals who do not willingly adhere to set rules). Community sanctions are particularly effective as nobody wants to be pointed out as the person who is not helping in the struggle that everybody is involved in. Another tool that works well in a pandemic is triggering the disgust mechanism(8) in our brain. Since we are wired to avoid things that are disgusting, visuals of contaminated hands and surfaces nudge us to wash hands and wipe down surfaces more frequently.

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Risk perceptions of Covid-19 are varied in our society. Our perceptions are influenced by a variety of factors including economic, information source, peers and society and our own personality traits. Within our diverse views we need to remain unified in our responsibility to self and the community in keeping safe and curbing the spread of Covid-19.

Author – Wairimu Muthike

Wairimu is a Partnerships Director at Busara Center for Behavioral Economics. Her role involves working with interdisciplinary professional teams for successful and result driven program execution. With 10+ years’ experience working in the innovation space, she is passionate about bridging the gap between technological innovation and solution application

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