Sandra Geiger contributes to a new global study published in the journal Nature


Evidence for Behavioral Sciences in Policymaking During the COVID-19 Pandemic

A new global study led by Kai Ruggeri, PhD (Columbia Mailman School of Public Health), involving over 80 collaborators, including Sandra Geiger (Environmental Psychology, University of Vienna), underscores the crucial role of behavioral sciences in formulating policy decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings are published in the journal Nature.

In April 2020, a group of researchers published a highly influential paper with 19 policy recommendations around COVID-19 based on insights from the behavioral sciences. Its recommendations covered topics such as official messaging on social distancing, how to get a vaccine once available, and the need to work within communities to create real impact.

This new paper evaluates the evidence for these 19 recommendations and their applicability to policymaking. Two independent teams of 72 experts reviewed 747 pandemic-related research articles to assess the extent to which claims in the original paper provided valid policy guidance. They treated studies conducted (and replicated) in real-world settings across large populations in multiple settings as the highest level and flagged arguments not backed by empirical evidence.

The study finds evidence for 18 of 19 claims. The most strongly supported claims were the importance of interventions to combat misinformation and polarization, which proved vital for ensuring adherence to public health guidelines. Research also underlined that messaging needs to emanate from trusted leaders and emphasize positive social norms to be effective. There was no effect for two proposed policies related to effective public messaging (that messages should emphasize benefits to the recipient and focus on protecting others). Notably, the team found no evidence to review for one high-profile recommendation in the 2020 paper, which suggested the phrasing “physical distancing” is preferable to “social distancing.”

Finally, the study provides recommendations to help researchers and policymakers respond to future pandemics and disasters. These include the need to study global populations, to conduct more field experiments, and to be more specific in formulating testable questions. The researchers also encourage scientists to forge more alliances with policymakers and decision-makers—in local government, hospitals, schools, the media, and beyond.

Publication: A synthesis of evidence for policy from behavioural science during COVID-19. Ruggeri, K., Stock, F., Haslam, S.A. et al. Nature 2023.

DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-06840-9