Did the UK government's direct messages during the early stages of the pandemic work?

Policy makers do not always have to be afraid of using harsh language when communicating with the public.
- Professor Paul Dolan
covid-19 London 747 560

LSE research suggests strong commands made by government officials during the Covid-19 pandemic may have increased people’s intentions to comply with public health orders.

In March 2020, UK prime minister Boris Johnson announced the UK’s first national lockdown with the core message: ‘you must stay at home’. Similar edicts were made by many governments around the world; but did this assertive message encourage compliance with Covid-19 rules?

Previous research has indicated that these types of draconian orders can create resistance. A new study from the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics and Political Science found that such orders may, in fact, increase compliance intentions, but without any significant effect on behaviour.

In research published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science journal in April 2021, the authors conducted a series of three experiments in the UK, with nearly 7,000 participants. Between April and October 2020, participants were exposed to different types of messages describing desired behaviours, and asked about their intention to comply with public health orders. Compliance with these behavioural recommendations was then measured three days later.

Although the people surveyed found commanding messages threatening and felt angry and negative toward them, the commanding language motivated participants to intend to change their behaviour, for example, to stay at home.

But these commanding messages did not translate into actual changes in behaviour amongst the sample. The authors write that most crucial element of any communication strategy should be to support people to follow through on their intentions, and to “provide appropriate support that could translate these intentions to behaviour”, such as sending them timely reminders. 

Dr Dario Krpan said: "Contrary to the literature on psychological reactance, we did not find evidence that commanding language reduces compliance regarding COVID-19. In fact, even if people were angry when encountering such communication, they still intended to change their behaviour."

Professor Paul Dolan said: “Policy makers do not always have to be afraid of using harsh language when communicating with the public, but they must ensure that they provide people with additional behavioural strategies that can help them translate good intentions into behaviour.”