Bridging the gap between common sense and nanny state

Press/Media: Expert Comment


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.

Period8 Jun 2020

Media contributions


Media contributions

  • TitleBridging the gap between common sense and nanny state
    Media name/outletMedical Journal of Australia - Insight
    DescriptionAustralia 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.
    PersonsKlay Lamprell