Change health messaging to focus on potential impact to help stop the next pandemic

July 9, 2018, City University London
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Changing public health messaging to focus on the impact of our actions—for example the potentially harmful impact of infecting a colleague with a cold, rather than whether we will infect them if we go into work in the first place—could have significant implications for how we deal with global threats, according to a new study from City University of London, the Oxford Martin School (University of Oxford), and Yale University.

Uncertainty about how our choices will affect others is a common occurrence in our social lives, with previous research suggesting that such uncertainty leads to solely selfish decisions and actions. However, the new study found for the first time that uncertain situations do not always lead to selfish behaviour. Appealing to people to think about the impact of such potentially harmful actions can lead to decisions which err on the side of caution. The paper is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

When it comes to social decisions, the uncertainty we face can be split into two types, known as outcome uncertainty (i.e. uncertainty about the outcomes of decisions) and impact uncertainty (i.e. how an outcome will impact another person).

The researchers found that by focusing on messaging which appeals to impact uncertainty, and not outcome uncertainty, participants reported that they would be more willing to adopt behavior that would help contain the threat of infectious disease, highlighting the relevance of the findings for addressing . This discovery could also enable officials and policy makers to nudge people towards less selfish decisions when faced with such issues.

To explore how people responded to impact and outcome uncertainty, the researchers carried out a series of experiments which varied the information participants received about the people potentially affected by their decisions. The results suggest that outcome uncertainty activates self-focused narratives that enable people to tell themselves that it is very unlikely their actions will harm another person, allowing them to reap the benefits of self-interested actions without feeling selfish. Such self-focused narratives can lead to selfish behaviour by downplaying the potential social costs of self-interested actions.

However, the findings suggest impact uncertainty activates other-focused narratives that include potential social costs, leading participants to adopt behaviors that preserve others' welfare. Notably, these narratives may cater for self-image concerns (e.g., "only a horrible person would risk infecting a vulnerable other").

Dr. Andreas Kappes, a researcher at the Department of Psychology at City, University of London and lead author of the study, said:

"Uncertainty about how our choices will affect others is prevalent in all our lives, and we frequently are faced with such decisions. In our new study we found that when we are faced with uncertainty it does not always lead to selfish behavior, as instead, the type of uncertainty matters.

"Our findings suggest that when people consider the of their actions in such uncertain situations, such as harm they may cause by passing on a cold or flu, it can lead them to err on the side of caution. As a result, our findings offer new insights into communicating to the public, especially in contexts in which behaviour that preserves others' welfare is paramount, such as infectious disease."

Explore further: People more likely to trust, cooperate if they can tolerate ambiguity, study finds

More information: Uncertainty about the impact of social decisions increases prosocial behaviour, Nature Human Behaviour (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0372-x , https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-018-0372-x

Related Stories

People more likely to trust, cooperate if they can tolerate ambiguity, study finds

June 12, 2018
Can a new colleague be trusted with confidential information? Will she be a cooperative team player on a critical upcoming project? Assessing someone's motives or intentions, which are often hidden, is difficult, and gauging ...

Epidemiology expert creates modeling framework to better predict outbreaks

November 2, 2017
A mathematical epidemiology expert at Georgia State University School of Public Health has published a new framework for building mathematical models to better predict the trajectory of infectious disease outbreaks.

Pupillary response signals uncertainty during decision-making

March 6, 2017
Whether it involves stopping at a traffic light or diving into freezing water to save someone from drowning: many of our everyday problems require snap decisions in the face of uncertainty. When making decisions, it has been ...

Patients react better when doctors imply uncertainty, rather than state it directly

January 10, 2018
Choice of words might matter when doctors communicate uncertainty of diagnosis to their patients. A paper published in the International Journal for Quality in Health Care shows that the parents of pediatric patients may ...

Uncertainty fear and eating disorders linked

November 16, 2011
People who fear the unknown or view uncertainty as especially negative or threatening are more likely to report symptoms of eating disorders, according to new ANU research.

Recommended for you

College students choose smartphones over food

November 16, 2018
University at Buffalo researchers have found that college students prefer food deprivation over smartphone deprivation, according to results from a paper in Addictive Behaviors.

Study finds mindfulness apps can improve mental health

November 15, 2018
A University of Otago study has found that using mindfulness meditation applications (apps) on phones is associated with improvements in people's mental health.

Social media is affecting the way we view our bodies—and not in a good way

November 15, 2018
Young women who actively engage with social media images of friends who they think are more attractive than themselves report feeling worse about their own appearance afterward, a York University study shows.

New research has revealed we are actually better at remembering names than faces

November 14, 2018
With the Christmas party season fast approaching, there will be plenty of opportunity to re-live the familiar, and excruciatingly-awkward, social situation of not being able to remember an acquaintance's name.

Older adults' abstract reasoning ability predicts depressive symptoms over time

November 14, 2018
Age-related declines in abstract reasoning ability predict increasing depressive symptoms in subsequent years, according to data from a longitudinal study of older adults in Scotland. The research is published in Psychological ...

The illusion of multitasking boosts performance

November 13, 2018
Our ability to do things well suffers when we try to complete several tasks at once, but a series of experiments suggests that merely believing that we're multitasking may boost our performance by making us more engaged in ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.