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Complying with Physical Distancing

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

Physical Distancing has become a key requirement to contain the spread of the Coronavirus. But it has been challenging for many societies and countries to observe it to the tee, given the human tendency to underestimate the risk and chance of infection. As coping fatigue develops, especially in nations where the lockdown has been extended, it becomes very important to frame and communicate messages about physical-distancing in a way that motivates people to stay compliant to health behaviors.


Break Down Behaviors into Sub-Actions

Rather than disseminating messaging on “avoiding large crowds,” break down the action into specific sub-behaviors that pose the highest risk, and then encourage an alternative action for each. For example, encourage washing laundry near home (rather than communal areas), praying/worshipping in solitude (rather than in groups), or postponing weddings and other celebrations.(1)

Make the Ask Unambiguous & Categorical

It is important to explicitly communicate the ask(s)--i.e. the desired behaviors to eliminate any plausible disagreement over whether someone complied. When an ask is ambiguous, it makes it harder to tell when someone complied, and harder to tell whether everyone else agrees that they complied. In the context of COVID-19, many localities have sent their residents instructions to ‘social distance’ without clearly defining the term and, in particular, when it is permitted to leave the house. This not only leaves residents confused over whether it is permissible to, for instance, go for a jog – it leaves them the opportunity to exploit the fact that others are confused over what is allowed, to go out more than they would have otherwise.(2) Refer to design example 1 for more.

Make the Message Concise and Easy to Remember

It is important to keep the message simple and clear, in line with the above two recommendations. When there is more to be said, practice chunking of information – that is splitting of content and grouping them into chunks, so to avoid overwhelming and confusing the audience. Chunking makes information easier to remember and helps to overcome short-term memory capacity limitations, allowing the brain to process more items into long-term memory. (2,3) Refer to design example 2 for more.

Make the Environment Conducive for Desired Action

To complement this messaging, create a conducive environment for taking the desired action through visual cues and aids. Human beings are social animals, and our environment was designed to encourage socializing in many instances. It isn’t designed with physical distancing in mind, and so, our implicit bias will be to revert to behaviors that require physical proximity. To combat this, we can use visual cues that are contextually relevant to nudge people into taking the desired action. For instance, many supermarket have installed brightly coloured floor stickers near the checkout, to help people maintain a safe distance from each other. Even hand sanitizers have been installed at the entrance of many stores to ensure hand hygiene is practised.(4,5) Refer to design example 3 for more.

Communicate the Benefit to the Community

Communicate to people that the desired behaviors are not merely individual choices, but

instead constitute a public good. The primary goal of this emphasis is to ‘activate’ people’s desire to be seen as a good member of society, and their intuition that this ask will be socially enforced. At this stage in the COVID-19 pandemic, there are plenty of examples of public good frames. For instance, #flattenthecurve and #stayhomesavelives are accurate, succinct, widely recognized, and likely effective ways of communicating that prevention behaviors benefit one’s community. (2)

It also likely helps to make the public good frame as personal and specific to the individual’s community as possible. This can be done, for instance, by invoking specific people in the community who are impacted, and obtaining testimonials from some of those people (e.g., “stay home to protect me from COVID-19”, which can be presented alongside a photo). This can include people who are at risk because of age or pre-existing conditions, as well as healthcare workers such as nurses.(2)


Risk & Awareness Communication May Be Ineffective

Traditional approaches to emergency risk communication, used widely in these contexts, focus on what people can do to reduce risks or which actions to take if they are directly affected by an outbreak or other emergency. But behavioral science tells us that humans don’t follow the traditional linear model of behavior, which assumes that we weigh all available information, assess the costs and benefits of each option, make a choice that’s in our best interest, and then act on it. Rather, our human psychology and the context we find ourselves in often interrupt and derail this model-—meaning we may overlook information, make false assumptions, or fail to act on an intention.(1)


Policymakers (governments, public health authorities and experts)

Implementers & Enforcers (administrators, law enforcers, businesses)

Community Stakeholders (small business owners, community leaders and influencers)


Example 01:

When an ask is not categorical, it is hard to know whether everyone agrees that the desired threshold has been met. For instance, medical practitioners often advise people to wash their hands for 20 seconds, but it’s hard to tell exactly how many seconds someone washed for, because that’s a continuous measure. If they washed for 19.9 seconds, is that very different from 20 seconds? Will others realize it is different? etc. One can eliminate this source of plausible disagreement, for instance, by asking people to wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing a song like ‘Happy Birthday’ twice, or like the done in the video here.(2)

Example 02:

Example of a list of asks that’s too long and complex. This list of COVID-19 preventing workplace interventions made the rounds on social media. While comprehensive, the list is too long and too complex to be compelling: it leaves too much room for someone to feel and claim that they are compliant enough by doing just some items on the list.

It is better to shorten, simplify, and separate--group related asks in categories, or, better yet, create different lists for different categories of asks.

Example 03:

At the SuperBrugsen Brøndby in Denmark, red stickers let shoppers know how far apart to stand while waiting in line. (Photo credit: unknown)


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