Ottawa

Social, behavioural scientists have critical role to play in fighting COVID-19, says psychologist

Fighting the spread of COVID-19 has been an all-out effort for public health agencies and all levels of government, but some social and behavioural scientists say they also have an important role to play when it comes to responding to the pandemic.

New report looks at how other kinds of expertise can support public health officials

A pedestrian wearing a masks walks down Rideau Street in downtown Ottawa in April 2020. (Jonathan Dupaul/CBC)

Fighting the spread of COVID-19 has been an all-out effort for public health agencies and all levels of government, but some social and behavioural scientists say they also have an important role to play when it comes to responding to the pandemic.

A new report in Nature Human Behaviour examines how experts including psychologists and sociologists can support the work of doctors, public health officials and policy makers in communicating vital information and securing public buy-in.

"There's a lot of great social and behavioural science that's happening right now that helps us explain some of the numbers we're getting, and why some people are adhering to physical distancing policies and others are not," said Carleton University psychology professor Michael Wohl.

Wohl is one of 42 academics from around the world who helped write the paper. His work focuses on perceptions and responses to threats during a pandemic.

We can do a lot to help explain some of the behaviours of the population when we have these kinds of pandemics, and help guide policy.- Michael Wohl, psychologist

He said understanding people's reactions, whether it's handwashing or stockpiling, can aid public health experts in creating policies that help people cope and remain safe.

"Those who are working on a vaccine, they are front and centre. But we can do a lot to help explain some of the behaviours of the population when we have these kinds of pandemics, and help guide policy."

WATCH: Fear has a role to play in reducing the spread of COVID-19, professor says

Fear and anxiety have a role to play in reducing the spread of COVID-19, professor says

Ottawa

7 months agoVideo
1:40
Michael Wohl, Carleton University psychology professor, says a reasonable amount of anxiety can contribute to safer decision making, like washing your hands thoroughly and avoiding gatherings. 1:40

OPH on the right track

Wohl ​​​​​​points to Ottawa Public Health's adoption of the term "physical distancing" over "social distancing" as an example of using expertise like his to deliver a clear message that can help alleviate anxiety about the current crisis and society's response to it.

"That's social and behavioural science," he said. "It's not about losing social connections. In fact, social connections are so very important when you're engaging in physical distancing."

Vera Etches, Ottawa's medical officer of health, provides an update on the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Ottawa during a news conference on March 11, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Wohl said while rising fears during a pandemic can lead to negative consequences, some anxiety can be helpful in getting people to comply with safety guidelines and thus minimize their risk. But it's a fine balance, he said.

"You need to heighten anxiety a little bit," Wohl said. "But not stress people out so much that it creates ... mental health problems."

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