Title Bridging the gap between common sense and nanny state Media name/outlet Medical Journal of Australia - Insight Country Australia Date 8/06/20 Description Australia has taken two key approaches to reducing transmission of COVID-19: policy lite—
in which a few, sometimes conflicting, guidelines were delivered around the idea that we use
common sense—and nanny state.
We lurched from the prime minister urging us to use our own good judgement and behave
rationally to police patrols and spot-checks, heavy fines and threats of jail sentences. The
imperative to get things under control had become urgent, and the move to legislate, enforce
and penalise worked. We’re doing well at containing the spread of the virus and we’re
moving back to some kind of normal.
Could we have avoided the punitive, authoritarian situation we found ourselves in? Possibly.
We could have been more strategic in the way we marketed public adherence to COVID-19
health policy. We could have targeted hard-to-reach groups, like cynical Australians who
thought the early fuss was unwarranted and young Australians who absorbed the messaging
that older age groups were most vulnerable. Australians aged 20-29 comprise the highest
number of COVID-19 diagnoses.1
Behavioural scientists—and advertisers and marketers—have always understood that humans
won’t necessarily make the smartest choices even when they have access to the best
information.2,3 Common sense is easily skewed to immediate gratification of personal desires
and needs. We’re talented at rationalising why it’s okay to continue doing what we want to
There are plenty of examples around personal health. People still smoke, and will even spend
huge amounts of money for the privilege. We make excuses for skipping exercise and
overeating, and then pay diet companies and fitness coaches to work magic. Objectivity can
be an illusion cloaked in pre- and post-rationalisation. Sometimes we need to be ‘nudged’
into acting in our own best interests.4
Nudging is often employed by governments, using evidence-based insights into human
behaviour to market important health messages to consumers. Broadly, nudging influences
people towards a preferred choice so that they voluntarily and rapidly make the decision you
want them to make. The underlying tactic, put simply, is to trigger the mental shortcuts we
use to rationalise our choices.4, 5
These shortcuts are formed around biases that are innate, or that are learned and become
entrenched.6 We’re biased, for example, towards choices that bring us into a community and
allow us to fit with social norms. We make decisions based on first and strongest impressions
and respond to choices that are prominent in our field of vision or hearing. We value options
that are positioned as low-risk or that manage the level of risk for us. We are drawn to clear
classifications and stereotypes, and to anything that confirms us as being informed,
intelligent, compassionate and resilient.
Nudging strategies can be seen in the New Zealand government’s actions around COVID-19.
Their clearly delineated four-level alert system stamped order on potential chaos, describing
the risks the virus posed to the public at each level and specifying the measures the
government would take to manage and reduce those risks. The design of the alert hierarchy
on the government website is visually-eye-catching, simple to access and features prominent
motifs around physical distancing, such as references to “bubbles”.
All New Zealand government communication about adherence to the alert system has been
steeped in messages of social cohesion and belonging. The government COVID-19 website is
called ‘Unite against COVID-19’. Prime Minister Jacinda Adern’s dialogue links solidarity
phrases like “our team of five million” and “ working together” with desired actions, like
“going early and hard”. In addition to announcements and press conferences, she has made
impromptu social media visits, positioning herself as part of the greater New Zealand family.
This strategic messaging has a long-term benefit: it will endure beyond COVID-19 and
beyond any current prime minister. This won’t be the last pandemic. If a vaccine for
Coronavirus can be developed, it may only be effective for particular strains of the virus, as
occurs with influenza. Even then, a vaccine may only offer effective cover for a proportion of
people who are vaccinated, as is the case with the flu vaccine.7 Strategic nudging now can
shape a long-term culture of personal and social responsibility for virus management,
diminishing the need for coercion in times of viral spread.
As restrictions lift in Australia, our government has released a campaign aimed at preventing
a second wave of disease outbreak. Its catch-phrase is: ‘Stay COVID-free, do the 3’ (wash
hands, stay 1.5 metres apart and download the COVIDSafe app.). It is yet to be seen whether
a memorable rhyme urging rational behaviour can prompt us to act in our own best interests,
especially now that we’re basking in liberation from compulsory vigilance.
We’re also moving on from the ethical, legal and social repercussions of our leap into
authoritarian control. It is no longer front-of-mind that people were punished for minor
infringements, neighbours were reporting each other for breaches and family holidays
became subversive activities. The story of the young man who was fined $1000 for sitting on
a park bench eating a kebab is a distant blur. Only family and friends will remember that a
beloved father’s funeral was interrupted by heavy-handed police. It is forgotten now that at
one point, lovers in Victoria were not going to be able to see each other if they didn’t live
Targeted public health messaging informed by behavioural insights early on may have
prevented those repercussions and fostered enduring personal and social responsibility for
disease transmission. No amount of public policy messaging can achieve 100 per cent
compliance but we can bridge the gap between common sense and nanny state. If we want to
promote uptake of crucial health policy, especially amongst hard-to-reach groups, we need to
engage behavioural scientists as well as medical scientists.
URL https://insightplus.mja.com.au/2020/22/covid-19-bridging-the-gap-between-common-sense-and-nanny-state/ Persons Klay Lamprell