But across the nation, these messages varied—and not just in terms of the measures they detailed. They also differed in the language they used to describe the safety measures, with some encouraging people to stay healthy, and others cautioning them to keep safe.
Those messages struck a familiar chord with Angela Lee, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School. Lee studies regulatory focus theory, which distinguishes between two different motivating factors: the desire to promote a positive outcome and the desire to prevent a negative one. When Lee and her coauthor, Kellogg doctoral student Jiaqian Wang, heard the social-distancing appeals, they immediately recognized the emphasis on maintaining good health as promotion-focused and the emphasis on keeping danger at bay as prevention-focused.
Lee and Wang were particularly interested in how these tactics intersected with another component of how the messages were framed: some emphasized the benefits of social distancing for the individual, and others emphasized the broad societal impact.
The researchers wanted to understand which appeal would be most successful and why.
They suspected that a concept called “regulatory fit” would come into play. This is the idea that messages are more persuasive when there is a match between someone’s motivations and the way the message is framed.
Lee had observed in her previous research that thinking about ourselves as independent individuals tends to make us want to obtain positive outcomes, while thinking of ourselves as part of a collective tends to evoke a desire to avoid negative ones.
“When we focus the message on you, as opposed to America, you become promotion-oriented,” Lee says. “Whereas if I remind you that you are part of this great country, then you’ll become more interdependent and more prevention-oriented.”
With this in mind, the researchers theorized that encouraging people to stay healthy would work best when the appeal focused on the individual, but encouraging people to keep safe would prove more effective when the appeal focused on the nation.
And indeed, that’s precisely what the data revealed. After surveying more than 2,100 Americans, Lee and Wang found that both promotion- and prevention-focused public health messaging can succeed—but “stay healthy” messages work best when focused on the individual, while “keep safe” messages work best when focused on the collective.
Stay Healthy for Yourself and Keep America Safe from the Coronavirus
Lee and Wang first put their hypothesis to the test on March 18—one day before the first state, California, ordered residents to shelter in place.
The researchers surveyed 1,200 American adults, who answered a series of questions about their perceptions of the seriousness of COVID-19, then indicated their current levels of compliance with measures including staying home and washing their hands. Next, participants were shown the Centers for Disease Control’s recommended social-distancing measures, topped with one of six headlines.
Participants in the promotion group saw either “Here’s what you can do to stay healthy,” “Here’s what you can do to help your community stay healthy,” or “Here’s what you can do to help America stay healthy.” The prevention group saw either “Here’s what you can do to help keep you safe,” “Here’s what you can do to help keep your community safe,” or “Here’s what you can to keep America safe.”
After reading the CDC’s recommendations, participants rated how likely they now were to comply with social-distancing measures on an 11-point scale, with 11 signaling greater compliance. Finally, participants provided demographic information, including their political orientation.
When the researchers analyzed the survey results, they found that the headlines did affect participants’ plans to comply with social-distancing precautions. As expected, when someone’s identity as an individual was highlighted, the health message was more effective than the safety message: participants in the health group rated their social-distancing intentions at an average of 9.32 on the 11-point scale, as compared with 9.01 in the safety group.
The opposite was true for participants who saw headlines highlighting their American identity: those who read a safety message were more persuaded to take precautions (9.32) than the group who read a health message (8.9).
This regulatory-fit effect was observed equally among Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.
What about the participants who were asked to focus not on their identity as individuals or Americans but as members of a community? Interestingly, this group didn’t follow the same clear patterns. Lee suspects this is because of the ambiguity of the term “community”: “Some may think it is very small, and some may think it as much larger. So, we think that’s why it didn’t resonate.”
Regulatory Fit Matters for Lax Adopters, but Not Strong Adopters
Lee and Wang issued their next survey on March 27. By then, the pandemic had accelerated dramatically, and many states had issued stay-at-home orders for nonessential workers.
The researchers adjusted accordingly. Now that social-distancing measures were more commonplace—and, in some instances, mandated by law—they decided to restructure some of their questions.
They asked 988 participants to indicate how well they were already complying with measures such as socializing virtually and washing their hands. Then participants saw one of the four headlines described earlier about staying healthy, helping America stay healthy, keeping yourself safe, or keeping America safe. (The researchers omitted the ambiguous “community”).
This time, however, besides rating their intentions to comply with social-distancing measures, participants also estimated how many times in the next week they would leave the house for a variety of nonwork reasons, including exercise, socializing, and shopping for necessities.
The results of the second round of surveys revealed that overall feelings of vulnerability to COVID-19 had increased noticeably. The researchers also discovered that most participants were already complying with social-distancing measures as much as possible (a group they dubbed “strong adopters”). A minority of 149 “lax adopters,” by contrast, wasn’t following the precautions much at all.
Lee and Wang decided to analyze data from the strong and lax adopters separately. They found that strong adopters didn’t respond differently to “stay healthy” or “keep safe” messages, regardless of whether these were framed as benefiting the individual or the nation. That’s not surprising, Lee points out, given that “they were already social distancing—they couldn’t be staying home more.” In other words, the persuasive power of regulatory fit didn’t matter for this group, because they didn’t need much persuading to begin with.
The lax adopters, by contrast, were much more influenced by regulatory fit.
Among lax participants, those who saw the “help you stay healthy” message indicated they’d take fewer trips out of the house than those who saw the “help America stay healthy” message, while those who saw “keep America safe” said they would make fewer trips out of the house than those who’d seen “keep yourself safe.”
These results were so intriguing that Lee and Wang decided to reanalyze the results from the first survey, this time separating out the strong adopters from the lax adopters. They found the same pattern they observed in the second survey: the regulatory-fit effect was present among lax adopters but not strong adopters.
Collective Thinking (“Keep America Safe”) Yields Preventive Action
Lee says the new study offers several important insights for policymakers trying to help a pandemic-weary nation stay the course.
A disease like COVID-19 naturally demands a degree of prevention-oriented thinking—something that has proved challenging to Americans, who are, in general, fairly independent and drawn to promotion-focused thinking. This research shows, however, that “you can get Americans to think in more prevention-focused ways by reminding them that they are part of a larger group,” Lee says.
This insight should be particularly important when it comes to getting people to wear masks. Masks are mostly a preventive measure that protect people around the wearers as much as the wearers themselves. With people getting very tired of the pandemic restrictions, messaging that reinforces the call for people to wear a mask to keep America safe rather than to keep them safe, or that does not mention who may benefit, would help during this critical time.
“If people really see masks as something for other people and don’t see themselves as part of a larger group, then we have a problem,” Lee explains. “The important thing is making people realize that we are really in this together.”