Social Pressure in the Age of COVID-19

29 Mar


   From the time we were in middle school, adults pressured us not to be pressured by peer pressure.  But in the midst of a public health crisis, peer pressure has become among the main communications strategies from government leaders and social media influencers in slowing the COVID-19 contagion.

    The message: save lives—stay home.

    Among the social media stars jumping on board is actress Emma Watson.

    The evolving messaging is firmly grounded in long established psychological theory.  Research by Martin Fishbein and Icek Azjen shows how action is based not just on our attitude about committing to a certain behavior, but also what society expects us to do.  Fishbein and Azjen called it subjective norms.   The more positive feelings that are shaped about one’s attitude for the behavior, combined with the attitude toward doing what’s expected of them, are predictors of a certain behavior or action.   The resulting Theory of Reasoned Action has become a bedrock tool not just in public health campaigns, but social responsibility movements and advertising.

Figure 1

     The COVID-19 pandemic led to the public health necessity for populations to immediately restrict person-to-person contact to limit the spread of the virus.  Both political and health leaders have issued stay-at-home orders to hopefully slow the growth of infections long enough for hospitals to expand their capacity to treat patients.  The simple message:  if you stay home you will save lives.  That’s pressure.

     The breakdown of Theory of Reasoned Action, or TRA, as it applies to the pandemic is fairly simple. (Figure 1)  One’s attitude about staying home is combined against the social norm of staying home.  The combined attitudes directly affect the attitude of acting which leads to the action.

     The TRA strategy is the cornerstone of the CDC’s pubic communications campaign put together by the AD Council.

    Whether he knows it or not, President Trump has played a partial role in building and reinforcing the social norm.   During one of his recent White House briefings he told Americans their actions on social distancing were “saving many, many lives.”   To be sure, in this age of political tribalism, one’s attitudes toward the controversial president are an independent variable in whether to act upon anything he recommends.  But in this case he makes the powerful appeal for others, not himself.

    Clearly, there are more influencers than just the president.  Collectively, social media stars and athletes such as Minnesota Twins pitcher Jake Odorizzi are applying their own pressure.

 

Figure 2

    Social pressure in public campaigns is nothing new.  The foundations of TRA go back to WWII when the War Advertising Council employed peer pressure to encourage Americans to buy war bonds.  One of their most famous campaigns created posters to change attitudes about home front discussions of anything related to war production and troop movements.  The resulting messaging was “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” (Figure 2)

    Arguable one of the most successful Ad Council campaigns in the past 75 years has been Smokey Bear.  The strategy to increase fire suppression relied on a societal expectation that preventing forest and wildlife destruction was an individual action.  The message was clear and simple: “Only you can prevent forest fires.” 

    Fast forward to 2020 and the same message is reapplied to COVID-19.  Only you can help save lives—maybe your own.  That’s powerful peer pressure.

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