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To flatten the COVID-19 curve, target the subconscious

Source(s):  Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc.

By Leslie Zane

Even now, as fears about COVID-19 have grown across the world, there are still people ignoring warnings. They’re gathering in crowds on beaches or bars (those that are still open). They’re not washing their hands nearly enough. Despite the pleas of government and health officials, some people seem to be doubling down on social gathering rather than social distancing. And because of how viruses travel, these people are endangering the rest of us.

Why do some people believe the response to the coronavirus is an overreaction, while others think it doesn’t go far enough? Why do some arm themselves with masks and disposable gloves and hoard toilet paper while others refuse to change their routine? The answer doesn’t lie simply in their sources of information. It involves something deeper: the subconscious, where the vast majority of decisions are made.

As Yale psychology professor John A. Bargh put it, “When we decide how to vote, what to buy, where to go on vacation and myriad other things, unconscious thoughts that we’re not even aware of typically play a big role.” A study led by John-Dylan Haynes of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin showed that brain activity can reveal a person’s choice long before he or she is even aware of it. Neither rebellious nor compliant behavior is intentional; they are automatic. These two different cohorts are playing out a behavior that’s predetermined in their subconscious, unknown even to themselves.  

Understanding the brand connectome

Years ago, psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize for his work showing that the human mind has shortcuts (“heuristics”) that overpower rational decision-making. Last year in Knowledge@Wharton, psychology and neuroscience professor Michael Platt and I shared our discovery about what lies inside those shortcuts: intricate networks of brand associations accumulated over time, years in the making—some going as far back as childhood. We call these networks the “Brand Connectome,” named after the human connectome, a map of the brain’s neural connections. 

To win people over to a company, product or cause, marketers must fill their Brand Connectome with positive associations. Over 30 years in marketing, I’ve found that when a Brand Connectome has more positive than negative associations, and more positive associations than its competitors, people will switch to that brand.

These associations can be conveyed through cues—particular words, images, sounds and so on. This is why, for example, an M&M's ad featuring Danny DeVito surrounded by a pool of melted chocolate was so successful. This metaphor instantly associated the brand with bliss and superior, creamy chocolate.

Just as we all have connectomes for brands, we also have them for political campaigns, causes and more. And we have connectomes for health care compliance.

Unfortunately, efforts to improve health care compliance have a long and rather unsuccessful history. A team of researchers dug into more than 100 studies on “therapeutic non-compliance”—people who don’t follow doctors’ recommendations. Efforts to make medications affordable and easy to take weren’t enough. Why not? These measures did not address “psychosocial factors”—underlying beliefs, attitudes and motivations. And in general, the lowest levels of compliance with doctor’s directions came when patients were asked to change their lifestyles. Only a paltry 20 percent to 30 percent of patients did so.

In the case of COVID-19, everyone, not just patients, is being asked to change their lifestyle behavior. It’s the most comprehensive behavior-change initiative in modern history. No wonder so many people remain resistant. 

To change minds, officials need to market their message directly to people’s instinctive decision-making mechanism—their “Corona Connectome.”

Marketing compliance

People’s responses to coronavirus prevention are shaped by cumulative subconscious associations—for example, whether their parents’ approach to health and safety was protective or carefree; whether they lost loved ones to fatal disease; whether they themselves have suffered from serious illness.

To change the connectome of people who are noncompliant, officials need to pack their messages with the right cues that help leverage positive associations quickly. Connect COVID-19 precautions to aspirational movements, like community spirit and local pride, that already exist in the subconscious. Leverage people’s desire to do the right thing for others in all aspects of their lives.

Use imagery of famous people in protective gear delivering food to seniors’ doors. Make adherence, from using antibacterial wipes to staying home, a badge of honor. Feature rap artists, celebrity athletes and movie stars telling people to shelter at home. Use metaphors, like the proactive treatment of a small cancer cell, to explain the importance of stopping the virus as early as possible.  

Leaders must act quickly. With each passing day, even people who have been heeding the warnings might become tempted to resume normalcy. It will take a steady influx of messaging to shift people’s behavior. The good news is that if you appeal to the subconscious with the right messages and cues, instincts can be changed quickly and we can flatten the curve.

Read more about the coronavirus outbreak here.



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  • Publication date 30 Mar 2020

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