John Parkinson, Dean of the College of Human Sciences and Professor of Behavioural Psychology at Bangor University, is part of a group advising the Welsh Government on behavioural science through the pandemic and beyond.
Most recently, the group submitted a report following observation of pilot events in Wales, to inform and support the government during the broader 'reopening' process. The group also offered advice on behavioural aspects around the First Minister's recently announced Covid Control Plan, as Wales took the next steps towards a future with fewer Covid restrictions.
In his role as expert scientist on the Risk Communication and Behavioural Insights Group set up as part of the Covid response, John Parkinson has been providing input based on his academic track record on motivation and behaviour. The group have written several reports which have been submitted to Government feeding in to the broader covid response.
John said, "We've collectively gone through, and are still going through, a period of considerable disruption and change to our everyday lives as we try and deal with the coronavirus pandemic. This ranges from dealing with seemingly ever-changing regulations, and the need to process information from many different sources and directions, including family and friends, and social and traditional media.
"My role as a behavioural psychologist is to advise the Government about how best to communicate the risks the public face, as well as how we can support people to make dynamic situational decisions. In other words, making judgements about what behaviours are safe and what aren’t in different situations as people go about their day to day lives. What behavioural science has taught us is that much of our social behaviour is driven by unconscious processes, such as copying what other people are doing as a quick and simple way to determine what we should be doing. This can lead to an ‘Intention – action gap’ whereby we set out with the intention of practising covid-safe behaviours but end up failing to do so because of situational factors.
"For example, key protective behaviours such as social distancing, hand washing, wearing a face covering, respiratory hygiene and household ventilation are all things that have been critical in reducing the number of COVID-19 infections. However, sticking to all the guidelines hasn't always been easy for people, not because people can't see the benefit, most do, but because of other social, economic or emotional drivers that go against best intentions."
How risk and uncertainty is communicated to the public also has a significant effect on behaviour especially in the medium to long term. People generally don't like uncertainty for a prolonged length of time, so making sure the element of uncertainty is acknowledged, but then showing what steps are being taken to reduce it, around vaccination in particular, has been and will continue to be important. Likewise, reinforcing that the majority of people follow guidance is far more helpful than putting too much emphasis on non-adherence of the minority.
Beyond an advisory role, John has also worked with Public Health Wales, to carry out research to support the Government’s efforts to keep Wales safe. Carrying out behavioural observations at test events was an opportunity to inform the process of 'reopening' and understanding patterns of behaviour during the events, and how well individuals adhered to guidance.
John added, "The events really showed how important being clear about expectations of behaviour, role-modelling and individual environments were to the way in which individuals responded. It also demonstrated how the passage of time affected individuals and their behaviour. This allows us to offer the Government a whole range of recommendations, rooted in behavioural science, that it may like to consider as it develops policy."
In the coming weeks the task group will be providing advice relating to the Coronavirus Control Plan and the move to Alert level 0. This will include how to embed longer-term positive behaviours, how to reassure those anxious about covid, and how to build capacity in behavioural science to support future communications and interventions.