Applying Behavioral Insights to COVID-19

The use of behavioral science, or behavioral insights, is a proven best practice for cities to positively influence behavior. Cities have been applying this lens to their COVID-19 communications and messaging efforts to encourage public health-supportive behavior. Now, with COVID-19 vaccines available around the country, mayors and other city leaders can use behavioral insights to increase vaccine uptake in the general public. These techniques can also improve coordination between government and nonprofit partners that are critical in this effort. 

Baltimore’s Office of Performance and Innovation launched an initiative around COVID messaging in partnership with the Baltimore City Health Department. Using the Bloomberg design-based innovation process, the team conducted extensive research to understand some residents’ resistance to working with contact tracers and held workshops with residents and contact tracing staff to co-design new messaging to encourage behavior change in this area. Key findings included: using credible, personal messengers (instead of institutions), such as the newly-elected Mayor and faith leaders; addressing concerns around privacy; the importance of making a strong emotional appeal in the messaging; and broadening the campaign to be more inclusive of other COVID safety messages including vaccine messaging. This resulted in the Baltimore versus COVID campaign, which aims to show city residents that they must work together as a team to beat the virus. 

Bloomberg Philanthropies and U.S. Conference of Mayors have launched a partnership to support mayors in improving access to and understanding of the COVID-19 vaccine. “Mayors will need to be equipped to work collaboratively with trusted messengers, including faither leaders, health professionals, and other community-based organizations, to assist in addressing the concerns of residents and communicating clearly and transparently about COVID-19 vaccines, using innovative messaging and media,” said Dr. Lisa Cooper, Director, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity. “This is especially important for communities of color that have borne a greater burden of health disparities for centuries, are currently experiencing higher rates of COVID-190 infections and deaths, and that understandably have higher levels of mistrust of institutions due to historical and current experiences of discrimination.”

Ideas42 focuses on progressive policy and systems change using behavioral science. They have created a suite of useful resources for cities to apply a behavioral science lens to COVID-19 messaging to increase compliance with Public Health guidance, including:

The Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard partnered with 12 cities early in the pandemic to test COVID messaging about safe practices like mask wearing and social distancing. The bottom line: the same messages don’t always work in different cities or across different populations, and simple messages tend to be more effective than clever ones. More on their work and here: