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Covid-19: How to Change People’s Minds

Consistent, transparent, and credible behavior communication can persuade people to practice pandemic safety.

By Jackie Powder

When President Joe Biden announced his Transition Covid-19 Advisory Board within weeks of the November election, Susan Krenn, executive director of the Center for Communication Programs, felt both relief and disappointment. Relief for the expertise of the members, and disappointment that a behavioral scientist was not among them. 

“That’s an area of expertise as important as the science itself. If people don’t take up the behaviors that will protect them, all the science in the world isn’t going to get us out of this [pandemic],” says Krenn. “And because it's a medical issue, people tend to focus on that side and don't think as deeply as they need to about the social and behavioral aspects of it.”

The pandemic’s end may seem tantalizingly close with vaccinations underway, but it’s too soon to let up on universal safety measures. To that end, messaging must continue the steady drumbeat of mask, distance, quarantine—and now, get vaccinated. 

Krenn and Health, Behavior and Society chair Rajiv Rimal, PhD, MA, lay out some behavioral science communication strategies aimed at influencing people to do the right thing. 

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Know Your Audience

To develop credible and persuasive health communication, it’s important to understand where the audience obtains information, who influences them, who they trust, and what their concerns are. 

“The closer we can get to people through those that influence them and understand the barriers to some of those behaviors we’re trying to move forward, the more successful our communication efforts will be,” says Krenn. 

In the Black community, for example, distrust of the U.S. health system has existed for decades. Involving trusted sources like church leaders to help develop messaging and dissemination activities may yield greater acceptance of desired health behaviors, Rimal says.

Similarly, nursing home residents might be more likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine if they see communications that feature older adults who choose to get the vaccine, rather than seeing a much younger celebrity or politician get vaccinated. 

“That level of similarity goes a long way,” says Rimal. 

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Threat and Solution

Health behavior communication should convey the threat at hand, along with the message that even in a crisis situation, it’s possible to take action to mitigate the risk. 

“When you raise the threat level, it motivates people to take action, but scaring people is not enough,” says Rimal, who notes that the tactic can actually be counterproductive, and send some people into a “this-won’t-happen-to-me” mindset of denial. The threat or risk has to be paired with a solution. 

“I think framing the vaccine in terms of its efficacy and also addressing some of the psychological barriers that people have are important messaging components,” he says. 

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Everybody Does It

What we do is often influenced by what we think others want us to do, says Rimal.

It’s a basic principle of behavior change theory that people are more likely to adopt a behavior if they know that most people also practice the behavior. 

In application, that might mean sending a message that 75% of people are practicing a certain health behavior, with the goal of persuading those in the minority to comply with the social norm. 

This idea is important in the current pandemic. Rimal notes that the media often cover aberrant behaviors—how many people are not wearing masks or how many are not socially isolating themselves. (In reality, many more people wear masks and keep social distance than those who don’t, he says.) 

“Highlighting the problem may give the false impression that the behavior is much more widespread than it is, and the aberrant behavior that we focus on may become the norm,” says Rimal. “I think that journalists have to be mindful of how they’re portraying these kinds of behaviors.”


Tell a Story

Entertainment can be a powerful educational tool and is one that CCP has employed for decades in its social and behavior change communication work. 

Some television shows that have made the pandemic central to storylines are potentially reaching people on a more personal level than public service announcements or social media messaging. Krenn cites Grey’s Anatomy as one show that has told COVID-19 stories in a responsible way. 

“They’re able to very articulately, emotionally, and poignantly describe what it is like in hospital settings, for both patients and health care workers,” she says. “I think they’re able to share the story of COVID in a different way than what you’re hearing on the news. People are more likely to pay attention to and act on messages that feel personal.”


Timely and Transparent

Scientists continue to uncover new information about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 on a daily basis. Health communication needs to keep pace with current research findings and translate what they mean in terms of health behavior for the general public with transparency and consistency.

“We need to keep people informed as to ‘This is where we are, this is what we know, this is what we don’t know,’” says Krenn. “As things evolve people are going to have new questions—‘I got the shot, why do I still need to wear a mask?’ Communication really requires that constant reinforcement and follow-up.”