Mobilization of Behavioral Science in the Time of COVID-19


As part of our COVID-19 webinar series, IANPHI hosted on July 10, 2020 a webinar on the mobilization of behavioral science in the time of COVID-19. Moderated by Neil Squires of Public Health England's Global Health Department, the webinar featured public health leaders from the Netherlands and France. Behavioral science plays a vital role to play in efforts to control and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Research on behavior and health provides insights on how to help people understand and follow guidelines to keep themselves and their communities safe.

Theory-Based, Rapid-Response Work of the Dutch Corona Behavioral Unit

The webinar started with a joint presentation of the Corona Behavioral Unit of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) by the unit’s head, Mariken Leurs, and its head of research, Prof. Marijn de Bruin. The Corona Behavioral Unit came together in March 19, when the number of COVID-19 cases was rapidly increasing in the Netherlands as in all of Western Europe. Behavioral science was not part of the initial response, but when the central role of human behavior in the fight against the pandemic was recognized, RIVM began quickly assembling experts and forming a unit specifically dedicated to it.

Over the course of a week, the newly-created team was able to establish a scientific advisory board with 15 professors (and more willing to join), and after another week, it had secured funding and research grant. Its goal was and still is to contribute to the effectiveness of COVID-19 prevention measures by using behavioral science expertise for government policy and communication. One of the first tasks the unit undertook was to go through all the existing behavioral recommendations and make them more specific and more adapted to human behavior, which resulted in a major overhaul of the government website and the behavioral documentation.

The impact of the unit has also been visible on communications campaigns, at press conferences, and on policy at the national and local levels. The unit reports regularly on its most extensive research; a survey ran on 50,000 people every three weeks. Additionally, it conducts interviews, analyzes social media trends and carries out rapid response mixed methods research. Some of the most recent results are showing that many symptomatic people don’t isolate themselves and have lower intentions of getting tested for COVID-19 than asymptomatic people. When people become symptomatic, actual testing behavior drops dramatically. These findings will help inform future decisions, as the country is trying to prevent a second wave of infections.

Activities of the French Behavioral Insights Unit at the Inter-ministerial Directorate for Public Transformation during the Covid-19 Epidemic

Gaëlle Lièvre from the Behavioral Insights Unit of France's Inter-ministerial Directorate for Public Transformation presented the work of the unit, which supported the national deconfinement strategy during the COVID-19 epidemic. The unit focused at the time on improving communication, providing insights on human behavior during the pandemic and conducting specific COVID-19 projects. It produced recommendations throughout the national lockdown and its lifting on a large range of topics, such as education, transport, associative life and the workplace. The unit also carried out targeted COVID-19 projects, for instance on nursing homes, consumer protection against new types of frauds and the promotion of physical activity at home during confinement.

Lièvre explained that the team relied on a list of behavioral principles, which it applies in its communication recommendations. They involve making the danger of the pandemic visible, calling to duty than personal interest, being transparent about uncertainty and relying on the trust people have in science. Attention was drawn to the challenge of performing rigorous evaluation of recommendations and interventions in times of crisis, when urgent responses and deliverables are required by public authorities. This may lead to an inevitable compromise between scientific rigor and the necessity for immediate response. 

CoviPrev, a Psychobehavioral Surveillance System in the Time of COVID-19 

Pierre Arwidson from Santé publique France’s Prevention and Health Promotion Division presented CoviPrev, a psychobehavioral surveillance program led by the French national public health institute during and after the COVID-19 national lockdown. Arwidson’s team conducted 11 surveys between March 30 and June 24 to measure the adoption of hygiene measures and social distancing, and to monitor the mental health of the population, through criteria such as life satisfaction, sleep disorder, depression and anxiety. Each survey wave collected data from 2,000 people through online interviews.

The main trends showed that while the French population mental health was severely impacted at the beginning of the lockdown, it started to improve before the end of the lockdown, suggesting that people were getting used to the situation. Another finding was the decline in the adoption of social distancing measures when the population started wearing facemasks. The survey models included the influence of sociocultural, psychosocial and cognitive variables on preventative measures. Overall the level of compliance was very high in the population, but the program was able to identify some disparities between social groups, and on which groups to focus prevention campaigns. According to Arwidson, the conclusion was to favor positive messaging over messaging appealing to fears of harm or punishment.

Watch the full webinar

Learn more about the IANPHI COVID-19 Webinar Series

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