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Nudging out the Coronavirus with Behavioural Economics

As is customary in our articles, Nudge Theory has become increasingly popular as a way to influence people’s behaviour in many areas of the economy and society. This time, we will talk about a new topic, recalling back one time that we remember all too well – the COVID-19 pandemic. In this context, nudges have become an essential tool for governments, private entities and individuals to encourage desirable behaviour.

First off, some examples on how behavioural economics played a role in the pandemic are the use of posters that show people how to properly wash their hands, alcohol gel in the entrance of buildings, announcements to keep social distancing or even markings in parks or grocery stores to distance people. All of this is Nudge theory.

While various concepts of behavioural economics can influence pandemic-related behaviours, social norms are particularly relevant in the context of COVID-19. People often take cues from the behaviours of others, including wearing face masks and maintaining physical distancing.

However, while nudges can help create new habits, they may not be enough on their own, making the balance between remaining hopeful and creating awareness extremely important in communication during the pandemic to shape the behaviour required to combat the virus. If the situation is painted too grimly, people may feel a sense of learned helplessness and not take action, but if people are too optimistic, they may not take the necessary precautions. So, basically, overemphasising the risks associated with the pandemic may cause a sense of helplessness, while being too optimistic can lead to complacency and non-compliance with necessary precautions.

In this sense, the recent study by Levente Dudás and Richárd Szántó aimed to investigate the public’s support for commonly used preventive measures (e.g., social distancing, hand hygiene, and wearing masks) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing two different policy tools (nudges and regulations) and assessing respondents' risk perception and experience with the disease.

The main finding was that relying solely on nudges during an unprecedented pandemic is not advisable because the presence of high risk increases the public's preference for stricter regulations. If governments downplay the seriousness of the pandemic, people may perceive the level of risk to be lower, which would undermine the public's acceptance of any policy measure. Thus, Politicians are in a delicate situation, as they want to demonstrate their competence and the effectiveness of their measures without causing unnecessary panic. If the level of risk perception decreases due to such a narrative, citizens may not welcome the interventions necessary later on.

Even though this study was conducted in a specific context and focused on a limited set of preventive measures related to COVID-19, results challenge the idea that nudging is always the most effective and appropriate way to influence behaviour. It also raises questions about the role of government and regulation in shaping behaviour during a public health crisis. While nudges can be useful tools, they may need to be complemented by other measures, such as regulations and enforcement, to achieve the desired level of compliance.

Nevertheless, the findings of this study do not necessarily discredit the value of nudge theory, but they do suggest that it should be used judiciously and in conjunction with other tools. The role of government and regulation in shaping behaviour during crises should also be carefully considered. It can also be recalled that some of the attitudes listed before by several institutions had a significant impact on our personal behaviour during those times!

Written by Beatriz Santos and José Allegro

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