Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the JRC’s Emanuele Ciriolo and Marianna Baggio have been sharing their expertise on human behaviour to help inform the EU’s response.
From getting people to comply with social distancing measures, to tackling misinformation and fostering trust, behavioural economics and human psychology can provide valuable insights to help tackle this crisis.
We caught up with the two experts to find out more.
What sort of research do you normally do for the JRC?
Emanuele: We’re part of a team of seven behavioural economists and psychologists. As members of the JRC Competence Centre on Behavioural Insights, we study human behaviour across a wide range of policies – health, energy, financial services and taxation are a few examples.
Marianna: Making sure policies are effective often requires anticipating people’s reaction to them.
For example, new nutritional labelling for food can look good on paper, but its effectiveness depends on how people respond. Will they access it? Will they understand it? Will they trust it? Will they use it? Will it cause industry to make healthier products?
We bring our expertise on behavioural evidence to explore these questions and inform policymaking.
We work with several Commission policy departments on issues like vaccination hesitancy, financial decision-making, farmers’ behaviour and gender policy.
E: On any normal day we might be liaising with partner Commission departments, reading the latest behavioural science, managing trials, analysing behavioural data, or dealing with office administration. We also provide training for Commission staff.
We’re lucky that our work exposes us to a number of different policy fields, although over time each of us has specialised in specific areas.
How has your work changed due to the coronavirus pandemic?
E: We both have kids who are home from school at the moment. My teenage daughters are able to study independently but Marianna’s are younger and require some support in their studies.
Teleworking has inevitably meant putting some projects on hold. One example is an innovative study we plan to do with Colruyt supermarkets and academics on nutritional labelling, which will have to wait until containment measures are lifted.
M: Right now we are also dealing with a lot of urgent coronavirus-related requests for briefings and consultations with other Commission departments. We’ve also written for external organisations like the World Economic Forum, and answered media requests resulting from that work.
We need to be flexible enough to accommodate day-to-day work commitments, situational efforts and demands, as well as family time. I have been starting work earlier than usual so I can focus on urgent tasks before the rest of the household wakes up. But I’m happy that my kids are also very understanding and bring me coffee and chocolate when the situation calls for some extra help and support.
How might behavioural science help with understanding and responding to this crisis?
E: Since the outset, we’ve seen various measures adopted to tackle this crisis - health assistance for serious and critical cases, preventive containment measures, testing potentially effective drugs, increased investment on vaccine development, drastic confinement measures.
Some of these measures require large-scale behaviour change. That’s where behavioural evidence can provide useful insights, both on how to manage the current situation and on how to reflect on a future exit strategy.
M: We’re exploring questions like: what can be done to foster trust between people and governments? To encourage cooperation and compliance? To counterbalance the common feeling of overconfidence that makes us underestimate risk until it is too late?
These questions are relevant because of the specific challenges we face. We know that self-interest can often be compatible with socially desirable ends. But selfish and uncoordinated action won’t get us out of this crisis.
What has your research told you so far?
E: We recently shared a report with the Commission President’s advisory group, where we put forward three behavioural science-based recommendations for the EU:
First, foster a climate of trust between individuals and EU countries alike (for example through favouring pro-social behaviour and debunking misinformation).
Second, provide objective evidence and reduce the feeling of uncertainty.
Third, move beyond an emergency approach, develop a vision and plan ahead.
M: Behavioural science shows us that improvements can be made in the way the crisis is being handled by politicians. For example, when the mayors of large Italian cities say they observe ‘too many fines’ being given to non-compliant citizens, they are making a mistake famous in our field, called the ‘Cialdini big mistake’.
By portraying the exception (a few thousand fines) as the norm, they are neglecting the vast majority of citizens who are already complying with the measures. In doing so, their attempt to make sure people comply with measures can actually backfire.
Are you collaborating with other scientists?
E: Yes, we’re in regular contact with counterparts in Germany and the UK. We are also sharing knowledge and best practices through an international COVID-19 behavioural insights working group. The group includes behavioural experts who are working closely with their respective governments in countries including France, the UK, Germany, Japan, South Africa and Australia.
- 17 April 2020