Andrew Luttrell, Ball State assistant professor of psychological science, argued for social distancing by framing it in two ways: “think about your own health” and “think about everyone’s health.” Then, he asked people which argument was more persuasive.
Emphasizing a moral responsibility to slow the spread of COVID-19 could persuade more people to socially distance and follow public health guidelines, according to a recent study by Luttrell and Richard E. Petty, Ohio State University professor of psychology.
The study took less than five months to publish after research began in March 2020, which Luttrell said is probably his fastest project. He began his study with Petty through online surveys and said the peer review process was quicker than normal research papers due to the timeliness of coronavirus research.
“Probably, this project moved faster than any other research project I’ve been involved with,” Luttrell said. “The criticism is it’s going too fast … How do you make sure that you’re doing the best quality research as possible, even though you’re trying to move quickly?”
Despite that criticism, Luttrell thinks they may have started research a few weeks too late because people were already being asked to practice social distancing by the time the study started.
“These messages had been flying across social media and on the news,” Luttrell said. “Lots of cities were having lockdowns … so you kind of were forced to practice distancing.”
Over the course of the study, Luttrell and Petty collected data from 863 voluntary participants through crowdsourcing platforms Amazon Mechanical Turk and Prolific. Survey questions asked participants if they thought of public health as a moral issue and to rate the persuasiveness and morality of different arguments for socially distancing.
“There is no one perfect strategy,” Luttrell said. “The messages that work best for one part of the population are not going to resonate with another part of the population.”
Luttrell and Petty’s study divided arguments for social distancing into categories of self-focused and others-focused. Self-focused arguments for social distancing emphasized protecting personal health while others-focused arguments emphasized personal obligations to overall public health.
Luttrell said hypotheses for others-focused arguments about moral issues have been studied before, giving him and Petty a foundation for their coronavirus research.
“The others-focused messages are really only superior for those people who are already moralizing public health,” Luttrell said. “They’re not doing anything special for the other half of our participants.”
According to the study, others-focused messages were perceived to be more of a moral argument and only slightly more persuasive than self-focused messages.
“I think that’s an important message for public health communicators,” Luttrell said. “It really takes understanding the audience you’re talking to to know the best way to approach the conversation.”
Even though others-focused arguments for social distancing were not persuasive for some participants, Petty said, the messages weren’t rated less effective based on participants’ feelings.
“We didn’t find there was any particular group for which the selfish argument actually worked better than the helping-others argument, so that’s really important information,” he said. “If there were groups of people for whom the help-others argument was counterproductive, that would really be important to know.”
Luttrell and Petty’s study only focused on social distancing because Luttrell said they couldn’t think of an effective self-focused argument for wearing face masks.
However, Petty said there may be an effective way to appeal to a moral responsibility for wearing a face mask for people who believe their freedoms are being infringed.
“There’s some freedom, but sometimes we give up our freedoms in order to help others,” he said. “You start out by saying, ‘I don’t think you’re stupid. I understand there’s some reasonable things on your side.’ Then, you go on to give the core of your message.”
Petty said this is a psychological technique called the two-sided argument, when people are more likely to respond to something counter to their beliefs if their own thoughts are understood first.
“It’s more just of an acknowledgement or tip of the hat to that side,” Petty said, “which then basically opens the person up to listen to you because you’ve said something nice about their side.”
Though the study focused on social distancing, both Luttrell and Petty have investigated responses to issues people perceive as moral before, including drinking and driving, recycling and cigarette smoking.
“There have been tons of health campaigns in the past. You can think about wearing your seatbelt, which got to be accepted,” Petty said. “When seatbelts first came up, you saw exactly the same thing. ‘I’m not going to have the government tell me to wear my seatbelt’ or whatever.”
Looking back on gradual behavior changes with seatbelt wearing and cigarette smoking, Petty said, “With the pandemic, we don’t have years to change people’s opinions on this.”
After analyzing the research results, Luttrell said, he and Petty found that appealing to a sense of community tends to be more compelling. Ultimately, others-focused arguments to practice social distancing were effective, especially for people who thought of public health as a moral issue.
“When the reasons you give someone are about the moral, ethical, right-versus-wrong nature of the issue, that’s what we mean by a moral argument,” Luttrell said. “This is about not accidentally spreading this thing to people who could really be harmed by it. Presumably, that approach is going to be more persuasive for face masks, which we didn’t test explicitly, but I think the link is pretty clear.”
Charles Melton contributed to this article.