The effects of short messages encouraging prevention behaviors early in the COVID-19 pandemic

Pink, S. L.
Stagnaro, M. N.
Chu, J.
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Effectively addressing public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic requires persuading the mass public to change their behavior in significant ways. Many efforts to encourage behavior change–such as public service announcements, social media posts, and billboards–involve short, persuasive appeals, yet the effectiveness of these messages is unclear. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, we tested whether short messages could increase intentions to comply with public health guidelines. To identify promising messages, we conducted two pretests (n = 1,596) in which participants rated the persuasiveness of 56 unique messages: 31 based on the persuasion and social influence literatures and 25 drawn from a pool of crowdsourced messages generated by online respondents. The four top-rated messages emphasized: (1) civic responsibility to reciprocate the sacrifices of health care workers, (2) caring for the elderly and vulnerable, (3) a specific, sympathetic victim, and (4) limited health care system capacity. We then conducted three well-powered, pre-registered experiments (total n = 3,719) testing whether these four top-rated messages, and a standard public health message based on language from the CDC, increased intentions to comply with public health guidelines, such as masking in public spaces. In Study 1, we found the four messages and the standard public health message significantly outperformed a null control. In Studies 2 and 3, we compared the effects of persuasive messages to the standard public health message, finding that none consistently out-performed the standard message. This is in line with other research showing minimal persuasive effects of short messages after the very early stages of the pandemic. Across our studies, we found that (1) short messages can increase intentions to comply with public health guidelines, but (2) short messages featuring persuasive techniques from the social science literature did not substantially outperform standard public health messages.