back to news May 27, 2020

Using psychology to encourage long-term COVID-19 compliance

Customer wearing mask and social distancing in check-out line of grocery story

Outside the Ohio Statehouse, protests during Gov. Mike DeWine’s press briefings throughout the pandemic have illuminated a fierce divide between those who agree with coronavirus guidelines and those who don’t.

Recognizing such vehement polarization, Richard Petty, Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology, is teaming up with Xiaoyan Deng, associate professor of marketing in the Fisher College of Business, and several graduate students to uncover more effective methods of communicating public health recommendations and accurate COVID-19 information.

They will use seed funding from the Office of Research to conduct preliminary online studies of communication strategies that go against conventional wisdom to see which best encourage compliance with public health guidelines like mask wearing and social distancing.

“What we’re trying to do basically is to focus on some ideas that we’ve already examined in non-COVID-19 contexts and try to look at the extent to which they’re applicable in this particular context,” Petty said.

Petty and Deng will study five topics, each with three or four variations, for a total of around 15 experiments. 

Among those is a study examining a person’s openness to one- versus two-sided messaging, meaning messaging that presents only one side of an argument compared to messaging that acknowledges multiple perspectives.

“Conventional wisdom is that when you give a message you should tell a very consistent story,” Petty said. “In psychology and persuasion that’s called a one-sided message. That is often the right thing to do, but that may not be true for the people who are the most opposed to what you are saying; a one-sided message against them is less likely to work because it elicits all kinds of defenses. If you give them a one-sided message, it totally flops.”

However, a two-sided message — one that acknowledges some validity in the opposing argument — has been proven in discussions of other polarizing topics such as capital punishment or in selling products to people committed to alternative brands to reduce defensiveness. The two-sided message encourages individuals to become more open to listening and considering contrary positions. Petty hopes that pattern will continue when applied to COVID-19 information.

Typically, people just talk past each other, and that’s how things get out of control,” Petty said. “Nobody ever takes the time to acknowledge that the other side has at least something that’s of value."

Another idea Petty and Deng will explore is the persuasiveness of messages when they come from in-group versus out-group sources. This study, Petty said, will challenge the conventional wisdom that a message from someone’s in-group is always more powerful than a message from that person’s out-group.

“That’s true in many cases, but in our research there’s one very important exception to that that we’d like to examine in the COVID context, and that’s when the person on the other side says something that’s unexpected,” Petty said. 

He gave this hypothetical situation as an example: A Democrat hears from a fellow Democrat that Barack Obama did something good. Such news would be easy to accept; it would be par for the course. But if a Democrat hears that Obama did something good from a Republican, that is much more surprising, and the Democrat is even more convinced that whatever Obama did was great.

Action, DeWine and Husted distancing around a table
Amy Acton, director of health for the Ohio Department of Health; Gov. DeWine; and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted social distance around a conference table during a press conference.


The potential power of out-group messaging may be one reason why DeWine has an approval rating of over 80%, despite vocal opposition, following the early implementation of aggressive public health policies to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

“He already has many Republicans agreeing with him because he’s a Republican, so that’s the in-group effect, but then he gets the Democrats to agree, too, by taking a surprising position for a Republican,” Petty said.

Petty and Deng will start their research by asking online participants to self-identify their political leanings, their beliefs regarding public health policies and their commitment to those beliefs. Then, Petty and Deng will take subgroups — say, people who are staunchly against mask wearing and social distancing — and match those people with a variety of messages they are testing.

Based on the results, Petty hopes to further research the most promising messaging strategies in a more naturalized setting, like on social media.

“Typically, people just talk past each other, and that’s how things get out of control,” Petty said. “Nobody ever takes the time to acknowledge that the other side has at least something that’s of value, ... which will really get the other person to be more open to you. We have to take a step back, and that’s why we have psychology.”

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