Adapting behaviour to new norms

Public health experts have emphasised on protective behavioural practices to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

Proper hand-washing, using face masks and physical distancing are terms that the people have become familiar with.

Billboards are advertising these messages to passing pedestrians and motorists. Yet, such practices may not have been adequately applied. So, how do we alter human behaviour?

Although proper hand-washing should already be instilled as a habit, new practices, such as the use of face masks and physical distancing, are tricky and require altering the human behaviour — from gathering closely at meeting tables to having Zoom calls, from not wearing a face mask while shopping to wearing one.

The most challenging part of this health crisis is that we are advocating for behavioural change for the entire nation. Changes in an individual’s behaviour are driven by three major pressures — regulative, normative and cognitive.

First, our behaviour is governed by rules. For instance, standard operating procedures (SOP) in supermarkets or at workplaces, including body temperature checks and the provision of hand sanitisers at entry points, have potentially promoted positive behaviour.

We are obliged to comply, based on the behavioural reasoning of “have to”, with repercussions for those who violate the SOP. In doing so, we must ensure that these repercussions should not bring more harm to individuals and society at large. For example, during the recent Movement Control Order (MCO), 481 individuals were detained for violating the SOP by not wearing face masks and failing to observe physical distancing.

Violators potentially enter the criminal justice system, such as lock-ups and prisons, which is devastatingly now a breeding place for Covid-19.

During previous MCO phases, we had observed that the number of people detained increased over time. For instance, in Petaling Jaya, 75 individuals were detained in July and in the following month, 140 were detained. This begs the question on whether detention is an effective way to ensure citizens’ compliance.

Second, we are becoming more familiar with the term “the new norms”. Individuals behave in a certain manner because they perceive that they “ought to”, as everyone else is behaving in that particular way. The need for social approval can serve as a motivation to adopt protective behavioural practices.

It can be far more effective when these practices are modelled by influencers in our environment. We can even initiate this in our family unit. Starting small by focusing on our own circle in practising the new norms could create a chain reaction of good habits.

Third, behavioural change depends on how certain information are interpreted and valued through a cognitive process, based on “want to”, rather than reinforced through policies and norms. As such, effective science communication is critically needed to ensure that the right information is disseminated to initiate behaviour change.

Information is powerful to alter the people’s behaviour. It is also important to identify specific groups who might not have the ability to interpret such information accurately. For instance, individuals with low educational attainment or vulnerable populations might not have access to the mainstream media.

Awareness campaigns should then be tailored towards different groups. In conclusion, we must accept that the alteration of the human behaviour is inevitable as we co-exist with the virus. The power of the social structure and social influence should be harnessed to allow us to look out for one another.

Department of Social and Preventive Medicine
Faculty of Medicine, Universiti Malaya

*The letter was first published by The News Strait Times Newspaper on the 21 October 2020