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The Behavioral Science of COVID-19

hand putting on hand sanitizer

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to grow, consumers are reacting in ways that some might consider to be irrational—from stocking up on water and toilet paper to saying that they won’t order Corona beer. We’ve asked Ravi Dhar, the George Rogers Clark Professor of Management and Marketing and Director of the Center for Customer Insights and Professor Gal Zauberman, the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Professor of Marketing, for their insight on the public reaction to the news.

Why do you think people are reacting so fervently despite the lack of evidence about the actual risk of contracting the Coronavirus?

Dhar: The risk of the Corona virus is largely unknown, even to public health experts, so I wouldn’t say that the public reaction is necessarily irrational. If the risk could be quantified as lower or higher than everyday activities like driving to work, then the risk might appear clearer in context.

Still, in reality, our choices are influenced by what we think and feel at any given moment. With the salience of COVID-19 coverage online and on TV, consumers are responding in ways they respond to other uncertainties. Like with an impending hurricane, people are stocking up on canned goods and toilet paper. Of course, pictures of empty shelves trigger thoughts about scarcity. Seeing others frantically shopping influences our own judgement about the risk, and these newly established “social norms” feed into the frenzy.

Consumers are also responding in accordance with another principle of Behavioral Science, which is the notion of control—or lack of it. When one feels they do not have control over a risk, their emotional response is even more amplified. That is what you’re seeing now.

We’re seeing a shortage of hand sanitizer but not of soap, despite the fact that the CDC recommends handwashing first.  Why do you think this might be happening? 

Zauberman: There are two aspects to this. The first is that ease and convenience often dominate behavior. This has rational and irrational aspects. Rationally, hand sanitizer can be used anywhere anytime, while washing your hands requires a facility. Irrationally, small differences in convenience can dominate behavior even at the expense of effectiveness or monetary costs. The second is about the direct association between infection and sanitizer. There is a stronger association between fighting infection and explicit single-purpose sanitizers than with soap. Using soap is associated more strongly with dirt than infection.

Ease and convenience often dominate behavior

What else does behavioral science tell us about how people are preparing for the Coronavirus? 

Dhar: The main question is whether people are protecting themselves by engaging in tasks that are more effective rather than tasks that give the perception of greater preparedness but actually make them worse off. For instance, consider actions like washing one’s hands regularly vs. hoarding masks (i.e. not even using them). Washing hands is known to help whereas the benefit of hoarding or even wearing masks is unclear. From the consumer’s perspective, wearing a mask can feel more effective because it feels like you are taking action to address the situation as compared to a mundane, everyday task like washing your hands.

Behavioral science also teaches us that perceptions of lowered risk can lead to subsequent counterproductive behavior. We’ve seen this elsewhere with people who wear seat belts but drive faster or take deeper puffs on light cigarettes. The effect of wearing a mask could also encourage unsafe behaviors, as people who wear masks may then feel safe and free to touch all kinds of surfaces that actually increase their risk of contraction.

Zauberman: Apart from the aspects mentioned above, including moral hazard, one can think about the general psychology that drives our responses. To make this point clear, compare the response to COVID-19 to the response to climate change. One is immediate, emotional (e.g., sickness, death), and concrete, while the other is distant and ill-defined. This immediacy, coupled with defined risks, drives peoples’ behavior and tendency to want to gain control, leading them to take actions that are often counterproductive.

We have already seen the Coronavirus’s impact in places that some might find surprising. Take, for instance, the report that 38% of Americans would abstain from purchasing Corona beer, despite no correlation between the two. What is the consumer thinking behind this statistic?

Dhar: Articles in the popular press were reporting that consumers were avoiding Corona but there are several elements to this finding that require careful interpretation.  First, consider the survey design. We know from research in behavioral science that the order of questions can make an idea salient for consumers that might not ordinarily be top of mind. If I first ask you if you think that the Corona virus is connected to Corona beer and  if you will still order Corona, I’ve already got you thinking about Corona beer in connection with the Corona virus, whether or not you actually perceive any association in the purchase or consumption context.

Even if the survey questions are not leading or biased, another thing to consider is that the survey was measuring intentions, rather than measuring actual behaviorAnyone who has ever broken a New Year’s resolution is familiar with the concept of the intention-behavior gap. While we may say that we intend to avoid buying Corona, when we are looking at a row of beers in the grocery store or at the bar other factors, such as what we usually buy or what’s on sale, may be more salient.