Impact & Opinions | Tionchar & Tuairimí

The Power of Positive Persuasion

The Power of Positive Persuasion

27 July 21
 | 7 MINS

Professor Molly Byrne has ensured Ireland has been an international beacon for the use of behavioural science in the Covid-19 policy response.

As an Irish behavioural health researcher, it is easy to feel at a disadvantage.

The Danes capture health data on thousands of citizens from birth. In Canada, a ‘knowledge translation’ infrastructure allows the power of evidence to be harnessed and used directly by policy makers to guide health services.

In Ireland, by contrast, we don’t ‘do’ health data very well. Health services and policy are often more likely to be informed by politicians than scientists. It can feel hard to compete with international heavyweights.

That was, until the pandemic hit. Since then my experience has been different. And I have had a ringside seat, working with the Behaviour Change Subgroup advising the Government’s National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) on response and strategy.

Ireland can hold its' head up high – our response is viewed as relatively successful and sets a valuable example

Having shared the experience with international colleagues, it is clear not every country is the same. In the Netherlands, behavioural scientists had a battle to get government to engage with them at all. The UK was not the only country where the advice was blatantly ignored. Ireland can hold its’ head up high – our response is viewed as relatively successful and sets a valuable example.

So, what did we do right?

The first strength was speed. As the pandemic hit, Ireland’s first confirmed Covid-19 case was identified on February 29th, 2020. Within two weeks the country had gone into full lockdown and the National Action Plan was published.

It recognised how we must all adopt behaviours that enable us as a society to interrupt transmission and maintain solidarity and resilience. The behavioural subgroup, including social and behavioural scientists, was brought together on the day after St Patrick’s Day. It recognised the importance of our expertise in providing vital insights and evidence to support communications and other interventions.

Another strength was the diversity of the team’s work. The results of the Department of Health’s communications research were discussed, including weekly surveys and qualitative studies, with the aim of informing
public communications.

One piece of work revealed serious flaws in understanding of Covid-19 test and trace

As well as inputting to the design, tone and content of messaging, our advice led directly to a number of specific tools. A poster on handwashing at home was created and posted nationwide and other messages supported self-isolation planning and compliance. The subgroup also conducted primary research to address emerging uncertainties. One piece of work revealed serious flaws in understanding of Covid-19 test and trace – half of people believed there was a cost for a test. Public misconceptions were corrected through targeted media campaigns. We collaborated internationally and monitored literature to ensure the latest evidence, experience and insights were factored into recommendations. Research from 140 countries was considered on the issue of the use of fines to increase adherence to public health guidance. The findings supported broader evidence, from both psychology and economics, that the threat of fines and arrest are at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive.

There has been an exceptional public response in terms of people’s willingness to follow public health advice to protect themselves and others from the disease. This was secured, in part, because the Government sought out the evidence and our advice. And heeded it. It has been key to maintaining public trust, in achieving and sustaining a high level of compliance with public health advice, in promoting ongoing solidarity and instilling an empathetic response to the challenges faced by many people.

Our work has produced valuable new insights. These add to the global evidence on how to get buy-in from the public. And crucially, the work will underpin future policy to respond to this disease and, indeed, other pandemics or crises.


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