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How behavioural insights can help improve responses to COVID-19

30 November 2020

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to be challenging for everyone around the world. NSW customers seek useful, timely information and guidance to inform their decisions and planning.  

NSW Behavioural Insights Unit working to help people make smart COVID-19 choices

The NSW Behavioural Insights Unit partnered with government agencies to help the people of NSW make informed choices, comply with social distancing rules, and stay COVID safe together.

Social communications help to stop the spread

All over the world, people have had to rapidly adopt new behaviours to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Effective communication has been vital to public health campaigns.

What we did

We provided insights to inform the NSW Government’s communications advertising campaign aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19.

  • Harness social norms. Show the public that most people are complying and doing the right thing to stop the spread.
  • Highlight social responsibility and identity. Keep the messaging positive and reinforce that we can do this together. Tap into the public’s identity as ‘part of NSW’ by using essential workers in the campaign. Simplify and highlight the benefits. Provide simple messaging about why the behaviour is required. Be as clear as possible on how to comply with the desired behaviour.

Together, we A/B tested campaigns on social media to find the most effective message and creative execution to get young people to follow COVID-safe behaviours. 

The result

The campaign continues to see high public engagement and encourage positive behaviour change to help the NSW community stay COVID safe. These insights are continuing to inform the development of the next phase of the campaign. Summer messaging and creative will be clear, concise, and relatable and demonstrate a new social etiquette for enjoying summer in a responsible way.

Social norms boost COVID safe Public Transport

Social distancing has meant that the capacity of our public transport system has been halved. We know people travelling to work make up the bulk of public transport travel. So how can we reduce the demand for public transport among workplace commuters?

What we did

We co-wrote a guide with Transport for NSW to encourage businesses to allow their employees to work remotely where possible. The guide provided simple ways to do this. For example:

  • Harness social norms. Use managers and senior staff as advocates, or ‘work from home’ role models, and show people their peers are working from home.
  • Draw attention to active transport routes, including walks and cycle paths.
  • Make it easier to work flexibly for example encourage staggered start times, or simplify the process around flexible work arrangements. 

The result

The guide has been distributed to 1,800 businesses across NSW, making it easier for businesses to stay open while keeping their employees and NSW safe.

Simple and clear messages improve testing rates

Getting tested (and retested again) can help to prevent the spread of COVID-19. NSW’s focus on testing has helped keep numbers low, so it’s essential that we keep at it. We partnered with NSW Health and SydPath to run a trial on COVID-19 testing.

What we did

BIU provided advice to increase testing rates, including:

  • Make testing easy by highlighting that testing is free and no ID is required.
  • Provide clear messages about what testing involves, available in several languages.
  • Simplify the message: be consistent about who should get tested, and when, as well as when and how to self-isolate.
  • Stimulate a sense of achievement and community. Use leader boards to show the performance of local health districts against targets.

Rule-of-thumb SMS increases people’s intention to get retest​ed

We don’t always know what will work, especially when we’re dealing with unfamiliar circumstances. We wanted to test what message would be most effective in encouraging people who receive a negative COVID-19 test to get retested if they experience new symptoms in future.

What we did

We trialled three different SMS messages to see which text could increase the intention to retest. One of three text messages was sent to people with their negative COVID-19 test result:

  1. The business-as-usual text message
  2. Prosocial message with the lines “By getting tested you have helped prevent deaths in NSW. You need to get re-tested as soon as you feel sick again.”
  3. Rule-of thumb (clear and simple instruction) with the lines “Come back as soon as you have symptoms again. You need to get re-tested as soon as you feel sick.

We surveyed recipients of these messages and asked them:

 After you’ve recovered, if you get a sore throat next week, how likely are you to get tested?

The result

The rule-of-thumb message performed best, with an 11% increase over the business-as-usual message in the proportion of people who were extremely likely to get re-tested. This message is now being widely used.

This research also gathered feedback on the experience of getting tested. The overwhelmingly positive feedback motivated testing healthcare staff. Constructive suggestions also helped testing centres address their processes to reduce waiting times and keep up with test demands.

It’s fantastic to see this effect on intention to get tested, but we know that what people intend to do is not always reflective of what they do. It’s important to continue to test what works to change behaviour. That’s why we are continuing to run behavioural insights trials on behaviours to improve self-isolation and testing outcomes.

How can you use this in your work?

The approaches we’ve taken to promote COVID-safe behaviours can be used in other contexts.

Some techniques public servants might consider:

  • Provide clear, consistent and simple instructions: make it easy for people to do the right thing
  • Harness the power of social norms: show that most people are behaving in a COVID-safe way
  • Evoke a sense of social responsibility: show how following public health rules can help the people around us
  • Test to see what works: an intervention that’s effective in one context might not work in all settings. Test your approach before scaling an intervention. 


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