Associated Press

We didn’t sign a consent form, but we’re all participants in the world’s largest natural experiment in behavior change. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, millions if not billions of people around the globe are pleading for systemic solutions. In the meantime, we’re all trying to do what we can to flatten the curve of this crisis by not getting sick.

The best practices are well known: Keep your distance, wash your hands, don’t touch your face. But there’s a big difference between knowing and doing. How can we close that gap?

Psychologists sometimes describe the barrier to behavior change as the conflict between wants and shoulds. We know we should choose the side salad, but we want the basket of fries. We know we should save more for a rainy day, but we want to upgrade our iPhone. We know we should get more sleep, but we want—some would say they need—to find out what happens on Love Is Blind. One popular solution to this conflict is to turn shoulds into wants. Make working out more fun by listening to your favorite novels or podcasts. But when it comes to avoiding the spread of disease, that transformation isn’t easy. There’s nothing pleasurable about hand sanitizer or avoiding your friends.

We’ve been studying a different solution: Instead of trying to transform our shoulds, amplify them.

Years ago, one of us (Adam Grant) partnered with his fellow psychologist David Hofmann on experiments to motivate health-care workers to practice better hand hygiene at work. We put up alternating signs in different bathrooms around a hospital, and we evaluated their impact by measuring the amount of soap and hand sanitizer used in each location—and by having covert observers on each unit track behavior.

The first sign tried to turn hand-washing into a want by emphasizing personal consequences: “Hand hygiene prevents you from getting diseases.” But it didn’t work—in areas with that sign, doctors and nurses didn’t wash any more often and went through soap and sanitizer at the usual rate. But the second sign amplified the should factor by reminding the doctors and nurses of the pro-social consequences of their behavior: “Hand hygiene prevents patients from getting diseases.” Where the second sign was posted, doctors and nurses washed 11 percent more often and used 45 percent more soap and gel.

The psychology underlying the failure of the first sign and the success of the second is simple: When we consider our own susceptibility, we fall victim to the illusion of invulnerability. Germs are no match for me! But when we think about others, we’re more realistic about the risks.

More recently, we applied this same technique to motivate more than 10,000 employees at a global professional-services organization to use more of their paid-time-off benefits. Offering everyone paid time off from work is a crucial organizational and societal intervention, both for this crisis and beyond. But just because that option is offered doesn’t mean that everyone will take it. We found that even in countries with nationally mandated leave allowances, many employees don’t take as much time off as they could. Why is that?

It’s not for a lack of want. Most people don’t need to be convinced that taking a paid vacation would be fun. But often, people feel like they shouldn’t take their vacation or sick days, whether from fear they’ll be seen as not committed enough to their job or from worry that they’ll just come back to a mountain of work. This is despite the fact that being overloaded at work is a significant source of stress, and vacations can help reduce burnout and improve well-being, at least temporarily.

We wondered what would happen if we could help employees treat taking time off from work as something they really should do. With our colleague Grace Cormier, we randomly assigned one group of employees to think about why they would want to take a vacation by reflecting on all the ways that time off would benefit them personally. It didn’t change their behavior. Another group of employees considered how time off would benefit other people—their colleagues, family members, and friends. The activity took no more than five minutes, but it led to a 5 percent increase in the amount of vacation time taken. It added a compelling should to something they already wanted to do.

These findings apply to our pandemic circumstances. You’re probably going to have a hard time not scratching your nose, no matter how much you want to. But moral responsibility can be a powerful motivator. The potential consequences start to feel real when you spend just a couple of minutes considering the people you know who are at heightened risk of complications due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus—people like your parents or grandparents, that friend whose husband has a heart condition, or your colleague with diabetes. Even if we can make only a 5 percent difference, we really should try.

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