Why does international policy need behavioural science to tackle the pandemic?


Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

2020 will inevitably be remembered as the year of divisiveness – political, social and psychological. While social-distancing measures were imposed virtually everywhere, governments were struggling to make decisions multilaterally and often relied on the winner-takes-it-all approach to ensure security and vaccines for their citizens. On the other hand, social immobility intensified, making the prediction that the coronavirus would persist in the lives of those who are socially distanced from access to healthcare, advice and reliable information (Major & Machin, 2020). Many have turned to behavioural science for help and signposted how better knowledge of human behaviour can inform us and help us make effective policies to limit the spread of the disease, and ultimately, save lives. 

What does behavioural science have to do with international policy? 

Historically, policy has not extensively relied on the knowledge of human behaviour, but rather has focused on regulations and long-term economic and political consequences, while relying on assumptions of rational thinking (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009). More recently, behavioural science has increasingly been seen as a powerful tool that puts citizens at the center. It has begun to recognise that they are active decision makers in society – they are not passively compliant to information provided by the government. This approach is rooted in the idea that different heuristics and mental models, such as biases and theories of thinking, can be used to reframe citizens’ decision making context and consequently change their course of action for the better. For instance, in response to the pandemic, governments have used moral appeals to remind citizens to stand in solidarity with those at higher risk of infection and have implemented financial deterrents to incentivise them to comply with measures. 

However, we have seen how emotions such as fear and anxiety can affect individuals’ risk perceptions, dispositions to cooperate and trust in government and science (John & Stoker, 2020). Understanding how all of these components interact with each other can help us make policies that create the long-lasting changes in behaviour that we currently need. With the help of behavioural insights, we can rebuild a trusting partnership with governments and citizens, who are bound to work together. Perhaps we can create a more transparent and sustainable version of Rousseau’s social contract (Stott & Harrison, 2020).

Thus far, the pandemic has showcased not only our flaws as human species, but also our boundless capabilities for creativity, tolerance and willingness to change our behaviour during difficult times. Despite the limited physical proximity, we have witnessed people’s patient adherence to covid regulations, acts of solidarity with medical staff, donations of medical equipment for hospitals and laptops for children studying at home. We now know that a fundamental paradigm shift is possible, but it needs to be channelled in the right direction using the right behavioural and policy tools. 

How can we use behavioural science to nudge people to vaccinate? 

Game theory, often used in social sciences, can be a useful tool to explain patterns of human behaviour. Suppose the pandemic presents a social dilemma. Like the prisoner’s dilemma example introduced by the mathematician Albert Tucker, we can think about our individual choices as part of society. The choices we make will depend on others’ and whether they choose to cooperate or not. Anand & Bauch (2020) argue that in such complex dilemmas, individuals often choose outcomes for the greater good of society, not their individual wellbeing. This example has proven to work well in people’s willingness to follow public health recommendations, but may not be necessarily as clear cut in the context of vaccination. 

There is a growing scientific consensus that in order to limit the spread of coronavirus and slowly return to normalcy, we need around 60-70% of the population to be vaccinated. Recent findings suggest that vaccine hesitancy and government mistrust are on the rise globally, with only 44% of people willing to get inoculated immediately (Ipsos, 2021). The perceived benefits and costs of individuals making are combined with concerns about safety and side effects, fear and uncertainty. As social creatures, we learn from our community and engage with our environment, which in this case presents even more challenges to make an informed decision. The topic of vaccination is now polarised to an extent that has the potential to create even greater social divisions, in addition to the impact of social media and misinformation. While in the 19th century objections of vaccinations were often religious (Polland & Jacobson, 2001), now they are inherently political. That is why a standard rollout of a vaccination program may not be particularly efficient and we can already see rather failing strategies in some countries (Peel, Kuchler & Neville, 2021) 

In order to align social interests for the common good with individual interests, we need to rely on information, transparency and encouragement (Milkman, 2020). We need to tackle mistrust towards the government by being open to uncertainty and being as transparent as possible about the process of acquiring and administering vaccines. On the other hand, misinformation should also be minimised, as information overload is already apparent and it creates even more hurdles for people to make an informed decision. The European Union has already made efforts to tackle misinformation at its source, and organisations such as the World Health Organisation have emphasised the need for governments to signpost accurate information as wide as possible (EC, 2020; WHO, 2020). However, unified decisions on a multilateral scale are needed to increase trust in the global response to the pandemic and ultimately institutions’ intentions to preserve global public health. 

Once information and transparency have been established, it is now time to consider persuading people to get vaccinated. This would mean that, after creating channels for them to have trustworthy information available and consequently reducing anxiety and fear levels, vaccinations are as convenient as possible. Ideally, vaccines should be freely available, accessible via their mobile calendar as to when their appointment is and no waiting in lines. All of this suggests a fruitful avenue for designing vaccination programs in a way that will boost vaccinations, and reduce hesitancy and fear. Moreover, some suggest that promoting vaccination as one’s contribution to defeating the pandemic in an act of altruism, may be the right way to go to avoid betrayals (or free riders) in the prisoner’s dilemma. 

So what is the right policy? 

There is, ultimately, no right answer to this question, but there is a plethora of suggestions to what it may entail. Governments and citizens need to work together and create a dialogue, rather than policing violations of “don’ts”. We can use our rich understanding of human behaviour to better account for the complexity of emotional predispositions and sensory overload in order to help people make an informed decision about vaccination. Governments should ensure they are transparent, encouraging and providing easily accessible and comprehensive information. Because the virus knows no borders, governments would benefit from making such decisions on a multilateral scale and seek to minimise inequality. 

In such a novel and complex challenge, decision-making and implementing policy can be difficult, particularly when data and information are scarce. The long-term benefits of increasing inoculation are many. Persuading people to vaccinate has the potential to increase government trust, reduce polarisation and improve the implementation of behavioural-based policy mechanisms. Perhaps along the way of tackling this challenge, we may find a way to know ourselves better, and trust science in helping us make more effective policies.


European Commission (EC). 2020. Fighting Misinformation. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/info/live-work-travel-eu/coronavirus-response/fighting-disinformation_en#online-resources-and-tools ;

Ipsos. 2021. Attitude to COVID-19 vaccines. Available at: https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/news/documents/2021-01/attitudes-to-covid-19-vaccines-ipsos.pdf ;

Jentsch, P., Anand, M., & Bauch, C. T. 2020. Prioritising covid-19 vaccination in changing social and epidemiological landscapes. medRxiv. Available at: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.09.25.20201889v2

John, P., Smith, G., & Stoker, G. 2020. Behavioural science and the response to COVID-19: a missed opportunity?[online] Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2020/05/26/behavioural-science-and-the-response-to-covid-19-a-missed-opportunity/ ;

Major, L. E., & Machin, S. 2020. Covid-19 and social mobility. Available at: https://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/cepcovid-19-004.pdf ;

Michael Peel, M., Kuchler, H. & Neville, S. 2021. Slow vaccination rollout puts EU strategy under scrutiny. [online]. Financial Times. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/c9bbc753-97fb-493a-bbb6-dd97a7c4b807 [Accessed 5 March 2021] 

Milkman, Katy. 2020. Katy Milkman on how to nudge people to accept a covid-19 vaccine. [online] Available at: https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2020/11/30/katy-milkman-on-how-to-nudge-people-to-accept-a-covid-19-vaccine [Accessed 28 February 2021] 

Poland, G. A., & Jacobson, R. M. 2001. Understanding those who do not understand: a brief review of the anti-vaccine movement. Vaccine, 19(17-19), 2440-2445. 

Stott, C., West, O., & Harrison, M. 2020. A Turning Point, Securitization, and Policing in the Context of Covid-19: Building a New Social Contract Between State and Nation?. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 14(3), 574-578. 

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. 2009. Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Penguin.

World Health Organisation (WHO). 2020. Immunizing the public against misinformation. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/immunizing-the-public-against-misinformation

by Remina Aleksieva

Remina Aleksieva is an MSc International Public Policy student at UCL, previously completed a psychology undergraduate degree. She is passionate about the intercepts between behavioural science and policy, and is also interested in environmental policy, education policy and Eastern European politics.

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