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Social dilemmas and beliefs in COVID-19 Health Promotion messaging

Updated: Feb 1

The COVID pandemic has an intrinsic collective dimension. Researchers are exploring how social dilemmas and beliefs were associated with adoption of the protective behaviours.



What do we mean by social dilemma? A social dilemma is a situation where the individual and collective interests are opposed. Let’s look at an example of social dilemma. Let’s think of a group of fishermen all fishing on a lake. Imagine there is a limited stock of fish in the lake. Each fisherman will want to fish as much as they can to maximize the maximum gain for themselves. However, if each fisherman does the same, the stock of fish will soon run out and will not be available for anyone which is bad for everyone. This is a social dilemma, but it can be solved through collective agreement and action. If each fisherman respects a quota to allow the fish population to renew itself, the collective of fishermen will be better off in the long term because the resource will remain sustainable. Problem solved.


Now, consider how this applies to the COVID-19 pandemic:


1) As an individual, I may rely on others to practice protective behaviours such as staying at home and wearing a mask and think, ‘Hmm, everyone else is following the rules which means I don’t need to.’ People who do this figure that they will be protected because others’ actions are ensuring that they themselves will not get sick – we call that ‘free-riding’. However, if everyone adopts this same free-riding strategy, the protection provided by others no longer applies because soon no one is doing what is necessary to prevent infection. Soon, everyone will catch the virus. Just like in our fishing example, the collective only benefits when everyone is working together and doing what is right for all.

2) Some people might consider not adopting the protective behaviours because they do not want to be the only ones making the effort while others free-ride on their efforts and sacrifices – we call that the ‘sucker-effect’. If no one wants to feel the sucker effect and thus refuses to practice mask-wearing and social distancing, the collective will suffer.


In both instances, individuals are thinking about what others are doing to decide how they themselves should behave. In the free-riding scenario, individuals believe that the majority of others are adopting the protective behaviours which gives them safety, while in the sucker-effect, individuals believe that they should not be subject to doing things that others refuse to do and thus, only a minority of individuals are adopting the protective behaviours. In both instances, COVID-19 is winning, while both individuals and the collective are losing.


In our research, we reviewed data from the United Kingdom that shows how an individual’s beliefs and understanding of the virus were strongly associated with self-reported adoption of protective behaviours at the beginning of the pandemic. This supports how persuasive communication might target those beliefs to lead to behaviour change in non-adopters of protective behaviours. Persuasive communication may include posters or messages that explain the benefits of preventive behaviours while also explaining the dangers of not practicing the behaviors on the individual and those they love.


We know that there are always many determinants behind any behaviour, like people knowing the right behaviour(s) to adopt, having access to the tools to do the behaviour (e.g. availability of soap and water, masks, etc.), and that they believe the behaviour is good for them. We also know behaviour change is about small steps in changing minds and behaviours, and working on social beliefs is one way to go further.

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