The coronavirus messaging disaster

The coronavirus messaging disaster

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been getting a number of emails about the novel coronavirus. People have been particularly interested in how I would increase lockdown compliance and get people to social distance appropriately.

This is a great question, because I believe the current messaging strategy being employed (particularly in the US) is wildly ineffective.

Up until this point, the main message being distributed from federal and local officials has basically been:

“Listen to state and local officials. Wash your hands and practice good hygiene. Stay indoors. Implement social distancing. Make sure you stay at least six feet away from other individuals. We need to flatten the curve.”

Of course, the official messages are a bit more extensive, but this captures the basic info being repeated.

And I can’t think of a less effective way of ensuring that people gladly comply.

In fact, the messaging is only being presented in a way that will appeal to, at maximum, half of the population.

“But Jason, that sounds like a lot of people!”

Yes, it is. But in order for these measures to self-sustain, we need to take advantage of one of the most powerful psychological forces in existence: social pressure.

And in order to make sure that we’re able to maximally apply social pressure, we need more than half of the population to be on-board. We need people to really believe that they’re weird if they don’t follow along.

To do this, we realistically need 80+% of the population to comply, and the current messaging will not get us there.

So what will?


A more psychologically diverse messaging blitz.

As I mentioned, current messaging efforts only appeal to those who are conscientious rule followers—those who are easily swayed by authority. “Follow the instructions of the CDC and local and state officials”.

However, conscientiousness is only one of the five major drivers of behavior.

We also need to employ messages that speak to our emotions, and appeal to the humanity in all of us.

We need to hear stories and see photos of the people and families being afflicted by the disease. We need to be able to visualize the real human impact. This by itself would increase the appeal of social distancing to 70%+.

In addition, we need realistic but impactful messaging on the danger of the disease. Up until this point, the messaging coming from the authorities has been inconsistent. It originally downplayed the disease, and then pulled a 180—casting it as a potentially apocalyptic plague.

Nothing kills the credibility of a messenger more than inconsistency. And when it comes to fear-based messaging, the after-effects of overdone messaging can be immense (and irreparable).

At this point, fear has been used inappropriately. The fact is that we don’t have great data on the prevalence or the true fatality rate of the disease (because of the lack of representative testing). Until we do, it’s a highly risky messaging strategy to either downplay or overplay the danger. The authorities and news media should be expressing the extreme uncertainty of the situation and using “fear of the unknown” to encourage social distancing compliance. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? When you hear an unknown noise out in the darkness? You freeze in fear. That’s what we want people to do. Sit still. Stay at home.

But that’s not the type of fear that is being utilized in the communications we’re receiving.


We’re receiving messages about the nearly apocalyptic predictions of models that may or may not be accurate, and hearing anecdotes about gut wrenching deaths occurring at medical centers around the country. Neither of these types of messages accurately express the uncertainty present in the situation. Thus, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen panic buying and other socially harmful behavior. Why? Because these communications are stimulating “fight or flight” based fear. That’s what you do when, instead of hearing a noise in the darkness, you see a large shadowy figure walking towards you. But, in this case, we can’t tell whether the figure walking towards us is a 50ft fire breathing dragon or a surly wild boar. They’re both dangerous, but deserve much different responses and levels of terror.

You might be thinking that I’m being irresponsible with my above characterization and wondering what the harm is in potentially overplaying the danger of the situation at hand. But that would be a mistake. Overplaying the danger is a short-sighted strategy. If the authorities overplay things, they win the day but lose tomorrow. In other words: they potentially keep people safe today but destroy their credibility and trust going forward. So the next time a crisis comes, people will be less willing to comply and less trusting of the information being put forward. A country in which people don’t trust their institutions is barely a country. And it’s not as if overplaying the danger is actually going to be much more effective at changing behavior. It won’t be. Just use the correct type of fear messaging. Stimulate the “freeze” response instead of “fight or flight”.

Finally, the authorities should be explaining the why behind the shutdown, and should put forth a preliminary end-date. Without an end in sight, people will lose hope and get aggravated. And without a clear and understandable why behind the shutdown, people will just lose trust in the authorities and be more likely to disregard the official recommendations.

Almost everyone will feel OK with a temporary shutdown to allow the medical authorities collect a representative sample of serum tests, so they can determine the true prevalence and therefore death rate of the disease. But very few people will feel OK with an indefinite shutdown for something abstract and academic like “bending the curve”. The readers of this newsletter may understand and be moved by “the curve”, but most won’t.

In closing:

  • The current social distancing/isolation messages coming from the authorities are only going to appeal to 50% of the population (maximum)

  • In order for the social distancing/isolation measures to self sustain, they need to be seen as being accepted and followed by an overwhelming majority of the country (80%+)

  • The messages coming from the authorities are only stimulating 1 of the 5 drivers of behavior

  • In order to be effective, the messaging strategy needs to be diversified

  • The stories and photos of actual victims and families should be shared

  • The real uncertainty present in the situation should be properly presented in order to induce a “freeze” response

  • Danger should not be overstated, or else trust in America’s institutions could be irreparably damaged

  • A preliminary end-date should be given for the lockdown

  • A specific and understanding why should be given for the lockdown and tied to the preliminary end-date

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