In hindsight, we should have known 2020 would be a fiasco — really, what else could it have been? We’ve almost reached the end, with 2021 just weeks away. But before we shut the door to 2020, let’s review how behavioral science played into this year’s marathon of cataclysmic events.
From the behavioral changes required to slow the coronavirus pandemic to the battles with misinformation on social media, the need for sound behavioral science has never been greater. Yet as Robert Cialdini noted, despite the potential for findings from behavioral science to help battle COVID-19, “the most attention has been paid to health science, epidemiology and medical science. Not on behavioral science.” While the biological challenges themselves are formidable, they go hand in hand with the psychological and behavioral challenges that come with combating the virus.
This review compiles research and articles that have shaped our understanding of human behavior in 2020, from the novel coronavirus to the future of work and social justice.
Nothing took up more space in our lives this year than the coronavirus pandemic, and there was no shortage of insight on how behavioral science can help inform policy and public health initiatives, why it is such a challenge, and when early insights from the field are not quite ready to be applied.
Behavioral science began the pandemic with a focus on promoting non-pharmaceutical interventions like handwashing, mask wearing, and physical distancing to slow the spread of the virus. When most of the world was in lockdown, the focus turned to staying sane while in quarantine: Getting a fresh start with health behaviors that were knocked off course when we went inside, and taking care of our mental well-being. Once coronavirus became the new normal, attention turned to battling the so-called “quarantine fatigue” where we simply became tired of shutdown. As irresistibly social creatures who need human connection, we behave badly even when we know we shouldn’t. Due to misleading feedback, the collective-action problem, and non-salient dangers, we simply aren’t programmed to naturally continue on the path of perfection.
With the development of COVID-19 vaccines, behavioral scientists and the World Health Organization put their heads down to tackle the challenges facing vaccine adoption and how to build trust and effectively promote uptake. Such behaviorally-informed strategies will be critical when the vaccines are available at large.
Health System Innovation
If there is any upside to the coronavirus pandemic, it is the swift innovation taking over healthcare and health systems, both in terms of directly managing the pandemic and indirect effects spawned by it, such as the adoption of telemedicine and other digital technologies that enable remote care. Telemedicine alone has exploded from 11% in 2019 to a staggering 46% adoption rate by April of this year. The shift to remote care, where possible, has not only protected people from potential exposure to COVID-19 and lightened the burden on health systems, but has opened the door for innovation in digital health. Indeed, the ability to prescribe behavior change can help patients better manage their health at home, not only during the pandemic but indefinitely. The pandemic ushered in new opportunities for digital health to serve patients more efficiently, and often more effectively.
When vast populations entered lockdown in March of this year, working from the office became a thing of the past. Our homes became our offices, and most (if not all) of our work interactions moved online. For all the poo-pooing of technology in the past, our computers sure did save us this time. What behavioral science brought to the conversation was the realization that it is not technology itself that hampers relationships, but how it is used that makes the difference. There are better and worse ways to set up a remote work environment. Indeed, how we spend our time at work and in life (if you can actually separate the two) can have a major impact on quality of life, and experiencing it as “confetti” is far from ideal.
We learned from the sudden forced shift to remote work that workers do prefer to spend at least part of their time working from home. And despite the benefits of working from home, doing so when schools and daycare are closed has led to impossible juggling acts for many. The toll of the shift to remote work has disproportionately impacted women, in terms of domestic violence, sexual and reproductive health, employment, and gender equality.
On the bright side, research finds that shared pain (as in the disruption caused by the pandemic) works to bring people together. It may be the case that the pandemic pushed people farther apart in terms of physical distance, but brought them closer together in terms of psychological closeness. There has never been a time where psychological safety, or feeling secure in taking interpersonal risks at work, has been more important (or harder to secure with work turned remote) than the present. As a result, researchers have suggested ways to foster psychological safety, even in virtual meetings.
Racial and Social Justice
May 25th brought the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, and with it waves of activism calling for racial and social justice reform. Bias and stereotypes are a natural consequence of how our brains attempt to process information, but can have insidious effects that are harmful to those subjected to them, showing up in even the daily habits that many Black Americans are forced to adopt for self-protection. There is a great deal of research on racial bias, but the wealth of information about how our minds stereotype is often relegated to day-long or even hour-long corporate training events offering unconscious bias training. Whether well-intentioned or merely performative, these sorts of diversity, equity and inclusion efforts simply don’t work.
So, which solutions do work? Behavioral science points to structural, environmental change as the most promising path forward. We need to change processes, not people, in order to make headway. And we can’t get caught up in the uniquely American mythology of racial progress which argues that things must be getting better as time passes, even when they are not. Believing in this mythology simply absolves us of responsibility when we should be actively working toward change, as we can achieve with “positive deviance.”
Wealth and Income Inequality
The pandemic not only renewed conversations about social justice, but also highlighted financial disparities. The worrisome wealth gap that existed long before the pandemic was exacerbated this year, as many leave the labor market unemployed and more people are unable to support their basic needs. While some may actually make improved financial decisions during the crisis due to their increased attention to spending, and behavioral scientists can offer ways to get by on less, there is a resounding need for more support to help balance the scales.
Often characterized (correctly) as the most intractable behavioral problem, climate change showed up this year in particularly salient forest fires in Australia and the west coast of the United States. The behavioral science of climate change tells us that it is difficult to encourage consistently pro-environmental behavior among consumers, especially when it is so hard to grasp exponential growth (as we learned with the spread of coronavirus). But a playbook of green nudges can help get people to act in line with their greenest intentions.
You don’t need an analysis of Donald Trump’s tweets to grasp how politically divided the United States has become. But you might want to understand the psychology behind the Trump era, nevertheless, or how political systems have been threatened in recent times. With a new administration impending, there is a need for behavioral scientists to inform political decision-making, such as with Biden’s COVID-19 task force.
The spread of misinformation, or “fake news,” appears to be at an all-time high, due in part to the ease with which people can share content without checking the accuracy of its claims, but also because of the illusory truth effect where the more often we encounter a piece of information (true or not), the more likely we are to believe it. It doesn’t help that the largest driver of misinformation is President Donald Trump.
Behavioral scientists call for evidence-based approaches for combating fake news, such as prompting people to consider the accuracy of content before they share it; researchers found that a simple accuracy prompt led people to be more discerning in sharing fake news. If social media platforms adopt such an approach, the deluge of misinformation circulating could be curbed substantially.
Although even the most prescient of behavioral scientists couldn’t have predicted this year’s events, a number of them attempted to predict the next ten years in the field. Through the Behavioral Scientist and Habit Weekly publications, leading scientists remain optimistic that at least the remaining nine years of the upcoming decade will be an improvement over 2020.
To close out the year, I’ll leave you with a few small gifts. First, a glance at ten behavioral scientists making an impact, and finally, some behavioral science songs, books, and films to keep you occupied as you (im)patiently wait for 2021 to arrive.