Kansas public health officials take lessons in behavioral science and why pandemic messaging has failed – The Lawrence Times

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Topeka – When the University of Kansas wanted to encourage students to get tested for COVID-19 when they return to campus for the fall 2020 semester, the administration turned to a team of behavioral scientists for advice.

The university can offer students a $5 incentive to take the test, a 50% chance for $10, or a one in 20 chance for $100.


All options will cost the same, but research has shown that students are more interested in a $100 gamble than they are in a $5 guarantee. For Derek Reed, Professor of Applied Behavioral Sciences at Kuwait University, this was a rare opportunity to demonstrate the value that his field of study could have in pandemic politics. The university ended up choosing the $5 option because it was easier to implement.

Reed presented that example and the science that includes ways to change behavior in a predictable way during a speech on March 31 at the governor’s public health conference in Manhattan, which was attended by hundreds of public health officials from all 105 counties and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. .

The idea is to encourage people to make good choices without punishing them. Or, to use a very scientific term, give them a “spot”.

“The bad thing about the alert is that it comes with a bunch of political baggage. What about freedom and liberty? Who are you to manipulate my choices?” Reed said. “That’s a fair question. However, the reality here is that no matter what you do, you are manipulating the choice whether you want it or not. The wording is going to matter.”

KDHE employees and public health officials from across the state listen to a keynote address on March 31, 2022, at the governor’s public health conference at the Manhattan Convention Center in Manhattan. (Sherman Smith/KS Reflector)

Here’s an example of the caveat: Hotels have learned they can save money by posting signs that say 70% of customers reuse their towels, but you can call reception if you want a new one. This attracts people who want to fit in with the norm, Reid said. Do you want to be among the 30% who no Reuse a towel? Other messages – such as threatening recipients with a fee or referring to the environmental impact of frivolous towel use – don’t work either.

Research in this area offers some explanation for why states and peer pressure are ineffective for public health officials.

In February, scientists revealed their findings from a “huge study” of 689,693 Walmart pharmacy customers across the country who received text messages about flu vaccinations in the fall and winter of 2020. Each person was randomly assigned one of 22 different messages .

These messages didn’t work: Think about the risks of getting the flu. People who get the flu shot are healthier, wealthier, and educated. Do others a favor by getting a flu shot.

The most effective message: a flu shot is waiting for you.

“You are all in the trenches doing this work and trying to make decisions to protect public health,” Reed said. “So we have that foundation. Unfortunately it’s not very popular yet. But we know that everyone wants a longer life, they want a healthier life, they want to enjoy their family and friends and their hobbies.”


In an interview, Reed said he’s tried for years to reach out to public health officials, and it took the pandemic to get their attention.

Reed said that public health officials who have never had to think about how best to get medical advice to the entire population have found that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work. People were receiving conflicting messages from other sources.

If people from the Walmart study also received a text message saying vaccines would kill you, what message would prevail?

“This goes back to what is your personal history? What are your biases? What is your background? Who do you trust?” Reed said. “A lot of people don’t trust the government, for good reason, so when the government tries to tell you what to do, you won’t buy it. And that’s where I think there’s been some failure. They were counting on, ‘Scientists tell you you should do so-and-so.'” No People want to hear it. My family doesn’t trust scientists.”

One of the lessons public health officials can learn from “selling someone” from the pandemic, Reed said, is that “there may not be a silver bullet to fix everything, but you’ll pick up some people who will respond.”

In other words, “small successes accumulate.”

“I think a lot of people are frustrated that they can’t just change everyone, but that’s not realistic,” Reed said. “So one of the lessons is to recognize the strength you have, and that any change for the better would be better than no change.”

Shruti Chabra, director of the Finney County Department of Health, appears on March 31, 2022, at the governor’s public health conference at the Manhattan Convention Center in Manhattan. (Sherman Smith/KS Reflector)

Shruti Chhabra, director of the Vinny County Department of Health, said in an interview that public health officials may have avoided some of the “political factions” surrounding testing and vaccination if they used an alert approach, “rather than being completely paternalistic.”

“So far, we’ve relied a lot on some kind of social stigma to push vaccination, but instead of doing that, if we have positive incentives, it can help people adopt a vaccine,” Chhabra said. “It may lead to less political discord.”

Shubra, who took office three months ago, said the lessons learned from the pandemic can be applied to other health issues, such as severe obesity. But as with vaccines, it’s hard to get people to adopt healthy, long-term behavior in part because the results aren’t immediately visible. There is no instant gratification.

Reed made a similar point when he talked about the value of “feedback,” which allows people to see the impact of their behavior. He noted that the smartphone produces a satisfying shutter sound when taking a picture, even though its camera does not have a shutter. This sound indicates that the process is running.

It’s important for public health officials to get back to basics, demonstrate their reliability, and speak truthfully, Carl Lee, director of the Kofi County Department of Health, said in an interview.

As it stands, Lee said, “two extremes took over the controversy and punished public health departments because we were the middle.”

“If you come to me and start talking about the COVID vaccine, I will start interviewing you about your health, what your health risks are, so that we can educate you about the risks and what are the pros and cons of all of this, yet still retain your choice,” he told me. “On the individual level, that’s what the Ministry of Health should do.”

Kansas Reflector is part of the States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: [email protected] Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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