Watch the replay of this event held January 15, 2021 (transcript below)

Social distancing. Mask wearing. Vaccine acceptance and uptake. The pandemic may be medical in nature, but many of the public health tools we’ve used to combat the virus, and the tools we’ll need to eradicate it, are behavioral.

Adopting these public health behaviors en masse is anything but straightforward, though critical to protecting essential workers and other vulnerable people. Shelter-in-place orders and masks have divided us, often along political lines. We’ve heard pleas to adhere to public health recommendations and witnessed protests against them, as well as fatigue. Why has collective behavior change in the name of saving lives been so hard and felt so personal?

And we’re not only grappling with new public health behaviors. With the New Year, many still have individual goals — eat healthier, exercise more, be better partners and parents. Can people achieve personal behavior change, set new habits and chart out new routines at a time when our “normal” world is turned upside down?

Watch our discussion from January 15, 2021 about the science of behavior change during Covid-19, with behavioral scientist Katherine Milkman and social neuroscientist Jay Van Bavel. The speakers shared their insights on topics like vaccine uptake, the polarization of social distancing and mask-wearing, and how each of us can carve out a place for personal development even in the middle of a pandemic. Evan Nesterak, Editor in Chief of Behavioral Scientist magazine, moderated.


Katherine Milkman, James G. Dinan Professor, University of Pennsylvania 

Katherine Milkman’s research explores how insights from economics and psychology can be harnessed for good, such as vaccine uptake, saving for retirement and building lasting exercise habits. She is the cofounder and codirector of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative and the host of Charles Schwab’s Choiceology podcast, which explores stories of irrational decision-making large and small. Recently, Milkman led a nationwide study on how to boost flu vaccine uptake in the United States.

Jay Van Bavel, Associate Professor of Psychology, New York University

Jay Van Bavel’s research examines how collective concerns — group identities, moral values and political beliefs — shape the mind, brain and behavior. He is the Director of the Social Identity & Morality Lab, which takes a social neuroscience approach to understanding the human brain. Recently, he has been investigating the roots of political polarization and has coauthored a study on how the social and behavioral sciences can support our response to the pandemic.


Evan Nesterak, Editor in Chief, Behavioral Scientist

Evan Nesterak is the cofounder and editor in chief of the Behavioral Scientist, a nonprofit digital and print magazine dedicated to exploring the world through the science of human behavior. Previously, he worked with Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania on character development research and, while in Philadelphia, helped kickstart the city of Philadelphia’s behavioral science team. He also led the Mindset Assessment Project, an initiative designed to bring rigorous psychological research into the world of sport. There he worked with the US Soccer Federation, among other organizations. Originally from Colorado, he currently lives in Prague, Czech Republic.


This event was cosponsored by the Behavioral Scientist. It is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis & Recovery, an ongoing series of live events and science journalism exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences and the way forward.

Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Knowable Magazine is a product of Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. Major funding for Knowable comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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Eva Emerson: Hi, welcome. This is “How to Change Behavior During a Pandemic: From Personal Habits to Public Health. I’m Eva Emerson, the editor-in-chief of Knowable Magazine from Annual Reviews. This is the fifth event in “Reset,” our series of conversations about the pandemic, its consequences and the way forward. I’m excited today to talk about some of the issues of how behavior is affecting us on a collective level and a personal level. Sometimes even when you know something isn’t good for you — eat the broccoli, not the cookie — we struggle to do it. The pandemic has brought out some of those same issues, on a larger scale.

Officials asks us to wear masks, avoid close contacts with those we don’t live with and stay at home as much as possible. These public health measures can slow the spread, but still day-to-day it can be difficult for people to follow. Today, I want to welcome our moderator, Evan Nesterak. Evan is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Behavioral Scientist Magazine our co-host for the event today and thanks Evan so much for agreeing to take us down this road of how behavioral science can reveal more about the pandemic and about our personal choices.

Evan Nesterak: Thanks, Eva. And thanks Knowable Magazine for inviting us to be part of the series, really excited to be here. We’re going to discuss behavior change today and particularly those hurdles that make it so hard. And as we’ve been socially distancing, we’ve probably been wondering about the behavior of others a little bit and about the behavior of ourselves. Maybe we’ve adopted new behaviors that we want to keep or don’t want to keep. And so we’ll talk today about strategies to overcome any hurdles, ideas to build new routines and habits. And we’ll also look at the greater collective and public health goals around behavior change which has been front and center over the past year. To guide us today, I want to welcome, two leading experts, behavioral scientist Katy Milkman and social neuroscientist Jay Van Bavel. Hi.

Katherine Milkman: Hi.

Evan Nesterak: So Katy is a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is the co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative. Her research explores how insights from econ and psychology can be harnessed to improve decision-making and make change happen. She’s also the host of the “Choiceology” podcast. Jay is a professor at NYU where he directs the Social Identity & Morality Lab. Much of his work focuses on how big-picture concerns such as group identities or political ideologies shape both our brains and our behavior.

Evan Nesterak: So before we dive into our conversation, I want to remind the audience to add your questions using the Q&A button which you’ll see at the bottom of the screen and in the second half of our talk, we’ll be answering some of them. And also, I know, I think we have people joining from all over the world today, so please, in the chat add where you’re joining us from. We’d love to know who’s here. All right, so we’ll start. Katy, a phrase I’ve heard you use quite a bit is that behavior change is hard. So, help us set the stage, even when there’s not a pandemic, generally, what are some of the reasons why changing behavior is also so often so challenging?

Katherine Milkman: Well, unfortunately, we’re not really wired well for change. We’re creatures who like to go with the flow and there’s a lot of psychology working against change and actually a lot of economics working against change, so I actually recently wrote a book called “How to Change” — it’s coming out in May — and one of the big features of that book, the way I ended up organizing it was around talking through different barriers to change and how distinct they are and how there’s different solutions to each of them.

So let me just highlight a few that are a focus in my book. One is temptation, right? That’s probably the one that I’ve studied the most that doing what’s good for us in the long run often doesn’t feel great in the short run and we’re wired to react to short-term rewards and not give a lot of credence to long run rewards, we discount them heavily, so that’s a problem. Another one is that frankly, we flake out because we’re forgetful. We forget to do the things we need to do and that might sound like a lame excuse, but it’s actually a real problem; if it’s not salient, if it’s not top of mind, that can be a major challenge.

Another is that we’re lazy. And I sort of started there: We like to go with the flow, inertia is strong, and so that can be a challenge when we want to change our behavior. We know we ought to do it, but wait, I’m going to have to change things around in my house or I’m going to have to throw away the food that’s in my refrigerator — this sounds like a hassle. So all of the things, like laziness, temptation, forgetting, those are big barriers.

We also have to have the confidence to change, so we have to believe that we can do it, and that I think is often overlooked. But, even though we tend to be overconfident in general, we can be underconfident when it comes to our ability to do something that feels like a big challenge, like changing. So those are a few of the key obstacles that I see, and a final one that I think Jay will probably talk about, because he’s studied this a lot, is social. So is our social environment going to support change? Are the people around us going to support change or our network going to support change? And if we aren’t seeing social support, it can be really hard, and often we don’t have social support for change. So all of those things make it difficult.

Evan Nesterak: Thanks, Katy. And I want to turn to Jay now, in many ways the pandemic has magnified the things that Katy was just mentioning. I can’t imagine a bigger change than having to face a global pandemic and us having to rethink our behaviors whether it’s work from home, new hygiene behaviors like mask-wearing and hand-washing.

And so, earlier this year or I guess last year at this point, you led a research team that reviewed the ways social and behavioral science can support the Covid-19 response, how it could complement some of the medical responses we’re seeing. So the paper covered a lot of ground, but I was wondering if you could pick one or two of the ways that you’ve seen behavioral science complement medical science as we’ve battled the pandemic.

Jay Van Bavel: Great question, Evan. I think the first thing I want to say is that we’ve probably undergone the greatest behavior-change experiment in human history in the last nine months. Katy just laid out all the challenges to change and if you look at how many of us have dramatically changed so many parts of our behavior of our life, just being on this call is a testament to that. Everybody here right now would be normally in a huge auditorium and it would be actually closed off to people from different places in different countries who could be here with us. So, that’s a behavior change that all of us have done.

And so, we’ve done that across so many different dimensions — from wearing masks, washing our hands, avoiding travel, avoiding crowds — that we’ve been able to prevent countless lives lost. And so that is the optimistic part. And one of the ways I think that social behavioral scientists have been good at working with the biological scientists, including virologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, is communicating some of the effects of social context.

And so, as Katy alluded to, one of the most important factors that determines whether or not people engage in change are social norms — and not just social norms, which is how people around us behave, but perceived social norms. So what matters is, what you think other people like you are doing. And so that’s been a really powerful way to create change. So not only, in seeing people around us wear masks, that’s something that really clearly signals that we ought to do it and often that’s enough to make us do it even if we don’t agree with the principle of wearing masks, is just that we see all our friends and neighbors and people in our community doing it.

Of course, social factors have also been a barrier. So when you have different groups within a society, with different norms and different leadership around behavior change, you get different results. And so, one of the things that we found in our research and we laid out in our paper last March when we were writing it, was that in the US for example, polarization was going to be a big risk because if you have people on different sides or different political parties who disagree about what the norms ought to be and disagree about the nature of the risk, you’re going to get different behavior.

And I’ll just give you an example from a study we ran, where we got data from 15 million people moving around the country every day, and we compared them to the previous year. And again, all this data is anonymized, so we don’t know individuals, but what we’re able to find is that people in Trump-leaning counties were less likely to engage in social distancing and reduce their movement than people in counties that voted Democrat. And so when you are getting different messaging from people in your community, even if the lead scientists are telling you to reduce your movement or wear masks, if you’re looking towards your own group and you’re not seeing people that you identify with do it or leaders in your group or sources of media that you’re absorbing, that you can have two very different worlds in terms of perceiving the reality of the risk and also in terms of actual behavior change.

And so that’s something that matters not just in this context, but it matters with all kinds of identities. And I noticed when the vaccine rollout started, they had a black nurse, a woman give the shot to another black woman. And the reason is because the African-American community was very hesitant about the vaccine, in part, because they don’t see people like them in medical roles as much. And so they carefully curated the message to maximize behavior change among that particular community.

Evan Nesterak: Let’s move to vaccines for a moment. Katy, you’re leading a megastudy investigating behavior change, the intention-action gap related to the flu vaccine uptake, so I’d love to hear more about that megastudy which is hot off the press or happening right now, and you’re analyzing the data. So could you tell us some of the things that you’re learning from that study and what it might tell us about how we want to roll out the Covid vaccine?

Katherine Milkman: Yeah, absolutely. I will say that actually back in the spring, it started to become clear when everyone was focused on mask-wearing my team realized, like if we look ahead, the vaccine is going to be the next big challenge and we should get to work on that, and behavioral scientists should come with a playbook ready to go ideally by the time the vaccines are here.

So what we did is we set up partnerships to do what we call a megastudy. So a megastudy is a massive randomized controlled trial instead of having a single AB test of one hypothesis, we instead test many different hypotheses all at once. So we can say make apples-to-apples comparisons about what ideas work best, and also do comparisons across populations and say what works best for whom?

So we set up a megastudy, or actually two megastudies. One was with two large hospital systems, so Geisinger Health and Penn Medicine, both of whom see lots of patients, and for healthy visits and we wanted to test different ideas around messages that could be pushed to patients in text messages leading up to a healthy visit, encouraging a flu shot. And then the other study was with Walmart and their pharmacy team with hundreds of thousands of customers encouraging people who had previously gotten a flu shot with Walmart and it opted into text messages — about 700,000 of them were randomized to get different messages encouraging them to come and get a flu shot this year.

And the idea wasn’t to touch on persuasion. We actually felt like that was going to be a different challenge for the flu shot than it would be for the Covid vaccine, but that there would be a lot of similarities in terms of encouraging follow-through. So a lot of us mean to do something, we’re already convinced it’s the right thing to do, but then still fall down on the job and don’t follow through. Estimates suggest anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of us who will say, “I’m going to get this colonoscopy, I’m going to get this flu shot, I’m going to vote,” and then don’t actually show up.

So we wanted to bridge that follow-through gap and we felt that it would be very similar for a flu vaccine and a Covid vaccine. So we tested literally dozens of different ideas. We have a team of about 130 scientists, we put out a call for ideas, and they came back and we got something like 75 ideas; we vetted them, figured out what was legal (there was some illegal ideas) and then we launched. And we do have some data back already actually, so we have a paper drafted about one of the trials and are getting ready to draft a paper about the other.

I will say, I think that the key takeaways for me are, it’s really important to send messages that are clear, simple, professional. One of the big winners, if you will, was also highlighting for someone, “This is reserved for you,” so almost implying there’s a default that we expect you to get this and so a lot of the behavioral science that we would expect to work well did, but things that were clever, cute and surprising, actually didn’t perform as well as I might’ve expected, and so I think it’s going to be really important for the messaging to be clear, simple, not too creative, but really clear about what the default and expectations are. And I hope that’ll be helpful as we face this new challenge.

Evan Nesterak: Katy, quick follow-up and we’d love your brief take. Are you optimistic about people getting the vaccine over the year?

Katherine Milkman: So, I can say less about how well operationally that’s going to go — obviously we’re disappointed by the operational success so far; things are going slower on that front. In terms of the persuasion and follow-through challenge of getting people — if it’s available — to actually get the vaccine, I am feeling very optimistic. It’s been great to see the numbers growing; there’s an upward trend. There was a low point in September when people were feeling very nervous because it felt politicized and maybe Trump was going to push this out before the election, and would that mean it wasn’t fully vetted? We’re now seeing those numbers go up, which is great.

We’re seeing scarcity is working for us, right? We know from Bob Cialdini scarcity is really important to persuading people they want something. Well, I would never have recommended we have a scarce supply is going to help in terms of people’s delight at getting this, a lot of the safety concerns I think will also be alleviated by the time we start to get to the general population, there’ll be many more months of data, many more people you’ll know in your community who’ve done this safely and social norms will start to build.

So I’m feeling optimistic that we’re going in the right direction. I’m hopeful that we really will be able to crack this. I’m excited about all the scientists who are teaming up and trying to figure out how to get this messaging right and I’m excited about the results that we have, I think we’ll be able to help. So, I am feeling optimistic, but only cautiously so, because behavior change is hard.

Evan Nesterak: Yes. Thank you for that. Jay, I want to talk a little bit about polarization in vaccines because you mentioned some of the social norms earlier and the health behaviors that people were signaling when the vaccine initially rolled out, you had politicians on both sides of the aisle, publicly getting the vaccine. And vaccines don’t seem to have been as polarized or politicized as mask-wearing, so am I correct in that observation? And what can you tell us about how politics and polarization could influence vaccination? Jay, you might be muted.

Jay Van Bavel: … that came out in Gallup this week. And what they found is that the biggest single predictor of vaccination attitudes in the US right now, is partisanship. Eight-three percent of Democrats said they’re willing to get it and 45 percent of Republicans. That means that that polarization is a bigger problem here than age, gender, race, education, and what this means is that we’re seeing the same pattern that we’ve seen with every single other behavior, at least in the US, throughout the pandemic, which was that, I talked about the data that we have on social distancing, you’ll see the same data in other studies with masks, now we’re seeing it with vaccines.

And so part of it can be driven by the fact that... And admittedly Trump has championed the vaccine, Mike Pence, I believe, got publicly vaccinated, which is good. But if you have convinced a segment of the population that the pandemic itself and that the virus is not that dangerous, then people are less likely to take risks and go get vaccine or invest the time to go get vaccinated. And so part of it is embedded in the probably just the motivation to do it, but part of it, I think, is also due to distrust in experts.

And so if you are swimming in conspiracy theories about experts, those probably extend to pharmaceutical companies and then you distrust doctors like Anthony Fauci who’s on TV telling you to get the vaccine. If you’ve distrusted him for other parts of the pandemic, you distrust him now. So this is one of the risks that you face with massive collective behavior change. If you undercut the credibility of the institutions and experts who are engaged in the messaging, then later on, when you want to rely on those experts and that messaging, it’s not going to be effective.

And so you might think this is a problem for individuals because it puts them at risk, but it’s also a problem because as a society, we need to get enough people vaccinated that we reach herd immunity. And herd immunity means that we can fully reopen everything without risks. So it’s important for everybody, for the economy, and it’s particularly important for people who have, for example, strong allergic reactions and they can’t get this vaccine, or if you have kids or you want your kids to go to school, kids can’t get the vaccine because it hasn’t been tested on them. So we want a safe place for our kids and to reopen everything for them, then you need all the adults to get vaccinated. So, basically just suffocates all the oxygen out of the room for the virus to spread.

And so that’s why I think that we can’t ignore issues of identity groups and politics when we’re thinking about behavior change because even though behavior change right now is fundamental to pretty much every element of society, health, economics, everything, if you have these types of barriers in place, it’s going to make it very hard for their messaging.

I don’t know Katy if you’ve done this, but first of all, I want to say that your approach to studying this I think is the gold standard. These megastudies with multiple interventions is exactly what we need to be doing, not just for this, but I think that’s should be the gold standard of science going forward and we need more funding for these types of projects.

But then it’s really important I think to look and I don’t know if you’ve done this in the data to see, are these messages just working, for example, for Democrats or independents, are they also working for Republicans? Because again, if they only worked for a segment of the population, then we’re going to have to maybe dig deeper and find out other interventions that are going to get through to people who’ve been spreading conspiracy theories or led to mistrust experts or the government or politicians.

Katherine Milkman: I totally agree. I actually think that’s one of the benefits of this wide study approach is that not only can you say, “Oh, it works better for some groups than others,” but when you have many things you’ve tested, you can say, “Actually, well, this didn’t work for this group, but this other message did.” And so actually that’s a big, I think, benefit of the approach we use, the ability to do that subgroup analysis.

And we haven’t started analyzing the data from Walmart; all the results I shared so far were from Penn Medicine and Geisinger, our two health system partners, but the Walmart data set is incredibly large, much larger than what we did with the health system partners and we will have the ability to do that, we have machine-learning group, that’s basically standing at the ready to jump on that. So we’ll be able to do better than, like, Katy takes a guess and tries to figure out what subgroups perform best.

Evan Nesterak: That’s fascinating, Jay and Katy. I want to, for lack of a better word, pick at the wound a little bit. Jay, I frequently turn to your research on polarization to help me understand our current political moment. And early in the pandemic, I remember some public health officials saying they were surprised how polarized the US response to this public health crisis became and they thought a public health crisis would sort of be unifier. It seems like, especially around mask-wearing, that wasn’t the case. It kind of became this political football. So were you surprised that mask-wearing — this public health behavior that seems straightforward — became politicized?

Jay Van Bavel: I wasn’t. So I actually wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, early March last year, when everything was within a couple days of shutting down— either had just shut down, I think when I drafted, it was just about to. And I said polarization is going to make this a public health disaster for this country. And at the time, I don’t think we were even really wearing masks; we were talking about distancing and washing your hands.

But what you’ve seen is that, as I said, the polarization piece is a common thread throughout all the health behaviors. And so one thing that our article does, or tries to do — our Nature Human Behavior review articles — we talked about the fundamentals of social and behavioral science. We didn’t have a section on hand-washing, a section on hoarding, a section on distancing. What we tried to do is think about what are the fundamental underlying elements of human nature that are going to be important no matter what the behavior is?

And then that’s I think one of the reasons why you see polarization is a persistent problem throughout these types of health behavior. And so, that’s why I think that getting at that root-causes element of behavior changes is fundamental to understanding what’s going on. Because if vaccines weren’t the issue, and it was some kind of medicine and that was polarized by our political leaders, then you’d see the same problem there. So it’s not a problem with masking per se, it’s not a problem with distancing. Individuals might say, “I don’t trust the masks,” but those same individuals are not trusting anything, because of this polarization and the way the media landscape is set up.

So I think that’s why it’s important to understand it at that level: these root causes, and figure out how we’re working to address those, because this is not an issue that’s going away in the US. It’s a problem in other countries where you have very polarized countries and populous leaders like Britain has had a very hard time with a pandemic, Brazil has had a terrible time, so this is something that seems to be a broader issue. The US was particularly bad, but other places have this.

And I will just say, it didn’t have to be this way. So, I’m Canadian. Canada has a conservative and a liberal party, and they’ve been increasing in polarization. But their leaders there decided to all come together. And there was a great paper saying this was actually a moment of national unity. And they analyze the Twitter accounts of the political leaders of different parties and found that liberals and conservatives were talking about the pandemic with the same seriousness. And then they looked at polls and surveys of the average citizen and they were taking it seriously regardless of their political preference.

And so what I’m getting at is that if leaders — and that includes leaders in the media and people who control the messaging as well — get on the same page about the seriousness of this, you’re going to have much more effective behavior change even in a polarized environment. So that is partly a decision that leaders make and how they decide to lead.

Evan Nesterak: Wow. I’m still processing all of that. It’s fascinating and it’s also concerning, to say the least. Katy, I want to pose a behavior-change thought experiment around mask-wearing. I mean, something you mentioned earlier was, keeping your messaging simple and keeping it clear. Would mask-wearing or vaccines... Should we have mailed everyone a mask in the country?

Katherine Milkman and Jay Van Bavel: Yes!

Evan Nesterak: Should we have done that? I’m in the Czech Republic, and the Czech Republic at the beginning did great because there was this huge, you know... Everyone was making masks for each other and wearing it and then we ended up turning into like every other country in this second wave, but it was great at the beginning. So, what would you have done differently if you were on the panel pulling the levers around what the government’s response would have been?

Katherine Milkman: That’s a great question. And I will say, hindsight 20/20, so I’m not sure, well, with all the extra pun associated with the fact that last year was 2020. If I had been in charge, I absolutely would have sent everyone a mask. Of course, one of the challenges was that I think the evidence has become much clearer for the value of mask-wearing during this pandemic. And really back in March, as you guys recall, the government wasn’t even recommending it, partly that seemed to me because there was unfortunate decision made to mislead Americans and instead of telling them what we thought to be a scientific truth rather make sure we were getting the masks to frontline workers, so I can empathize with the logic behind it, but I think it hurt trust. At any rate, it would have been nice if we’d had clear evidence that masks were the right thing to do, that everyone had agreed on that and we could have focused more attention on it early and absolutely mailing...

I wouldn’t have mailed one, I would have mailed a dozen, to every American, of high quality. I still think we should be sending people N95 masks, right? Especially with this new variant that people are worried about, it seems like if we could do that, that could be really valuable.

So that makes it easy, which is one of the barriers I talked about, sort of laziness. And if I have to like go out and do something or sew myself a mask, that’s really hard and then I do think, I totally agree with Jay that one of the key issues was to make sure it was visible, that everybody was wearing masks, that leaders were wearing masks from every party of every walk of life and I think we did not nail that — that should have been more central.

Those to me seem like the big missteps, and I think actually there’s a lot of consensus among behavioral scientists that if we had done those kinds of things, it would have helped. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have had problems, but it could have been a bit better.

Evan Nesterak: Thanks, Katy. I want to pivot a little bit now to talk about personal behavior change and I want to start. You know, it’s the new year. We’ve talked a lot about polarization today, some of us may have friends or family who we’ve had a falling out with or heated arguments with over the past year. So I was hoping Jay, based on the research on polarization, what advice would you have for someone who wants to seize this moment, seize this new year, to have a conversation with a loved one or a friend who they may, may be on the opposite side of the political spectrum or who they’ve come to blows with in this past year.

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. So I just want to acknowledge how hard that will be right now. Obviously, we just had this violent insurrection in DC. So even though it’s a new year, I just want to acknowledge that it might be harder, although the data that you’ve seen is that political attitudes might be up in flux right now, for example, around support for Trump. There’s a lot of debate even within the Republican Party about how much to support him after this.

So it could be a fertile time or it could be a really even more challenging time for most people. However, I will say that, and this is where the research I think is coming out now and I’ve looked around the corner to some things that are coming out soon, one thing that’s important is that the way we normally try to address this — and I’m a scientist, I’m just as much at fault for this as the next person — is I try to anchor the conversation on facts. And so, I am ready to debunk people and share science and as if that’s going to be influential.

And it is influential, especially outside domains of politics, so when you look at all these studies where they’re looking at convincing people for something that’s not political, science and data is really compelling. The moment it becomes political or moralized, it’s less compelling for people. And so you have to understand that just giving them information about something is not going to be sufficient.

And you have to understand they’re often coming from a very different universe of information than you are, whether that’s on social media or mainstream media. So I think the one thing is you have to be open to listening and make people not feel attacked. Another thing is if you can ground it in personal experience. So, say, “I’m seeing it this way” or “This is happening to me.” People often were willing to listen that it; it humanizes you. It also is something that goes to a very basic part of the way the human brain was designed to communicate, which is in small groups around fires, with stories. And so if you can tell a story and it’s personalized, people might be more open-minded to hearing what you say. They might respect you more and give you more standing.

Of course, I would say it’s ideal to say a story that mirrors what the facts are. Stories can be used in ways that mislead and manipulate, so I want to ground it in some good evidence, kind of like great pop science writing or great trade books, like the ones Katy’s writing. Find stories that help communicate what the data says. And I would say that the science books that I hate the most are ones that just like find stories that are compelling, but don’t actually back it up with any data.

So I think what you want to do is find a personalized connection with somebody that you can share that lines up with what some reality is of the data or good journalism or whatever, and communicate them with them on those grounds, because that’s like going to be more effective than just coming at them in a way that’s critical or with data because lots of research shows people get reactive. They can retreat to either ignoring you, block you or just disengage with you completely. Or get defensive and respond in a way that attacks you.

So you have to understand that when these are people’s identities, it’s part of who they are, how they define themselves. And so it’s not something that’s easily dislodged, just like our other identities: religious identities, national identities are not something you can easily just convince somebody out of with logic. So you have to think about this more wholistic humanized approach I think.

Evan Nesterak: I like this idea of a socially distant campfire to hash out and set our relationships on the right course for 2021. So I want to maybe go a little bit to the lighter side of the conversation and, Katy, I want to ask you about one of my favorite lines of research, your work on temporal landmarks and fresh starts, for me, 2020 totally blew up my goal of learning Czech.

I had the goal and it’s such a tough language and I wanted to do it and then pandemic threw everything out of whack. So, that’s… being living in Prague, that’s one of my goals. And so, can you explain, what a temporal landmark is, how we can take advantage of them, especially when time feels so out of whack, our routines are different, and if you have any advice for me learning Czech, please tell me.

Katherine Milkman: I’ll do my best. Yeah, I’d love to talk about this. So, along with my amazing former student Hengchen Dai, who’s now a professor at UCLA, and Jason Riis, who runs a great consulting firm called Behavioralize about, let’s say six or seven years ago, we started studying what we call the “fresh start effect.” And the fresh start effect is basically a description of the fact that life is not something we think about as a continuum.

We don’t think about time as if it just flows and every day is like the last one, instead we think about life in chapters, as if there are chapter breaks, right? So like, “Oh, those were the college years. And those were the years when I was, living in New York or in the Czech Republic,” wherever you might’ve been. And the moments that separate our chapter breaks and even some chapters, they can give us a sense of a fresh start, a sense that we have a clean slate.

So New Year’s is the one we think of as the biggest, but other small moments in our life that stand out from the ordinary and feel like they’re separating life into buckets or chapters do this too, so even the start of a new week, the start of the month, celebrating a birthday, taking a new job, moving, those are all moments when we feel like, “OK, I’m turning the page and it’s blank, and whatever I failed to do last year, I didn’t learn Czech, but I meant to,” well, that was the old me and this is the new me and the new me can do it. So we have that renewed optimism.

So I think fresh starts are great, because they allow us to believe in ourselves again, instead of getting too low and giving up. And then the real issue is, can we use the right set of tools at those moments to actually give ourselves the best chance at success? I always get the question around New Year’s of whether or not fresh starts or new year’s resolutions, which are driven by a fresh start are actually just a waste of time because so many of them fail, but I like to point out that, if you don’t try, you can’t succeed, and so I think it’s great that we try to get up after these failures and we have these moments.

I do feel like we got cheated out of our 2021 fresh start, right? Having an insurrection six days in for, I don’t know about you, but I felt like that blew it, so I’m eagerly looking forward to the new month and the new presidency and the day I get vaccinated, those will all be fresh starts and they may be easier to capitalize on. And then, we can talk more if you want, maybe even in Q&A, I don’t want to go on for too long, but about some of the tools that can help set you up for success when you were at a fresh start, you’ve got that peak motivation now, what do you do with it to make the most of it?

Evan Nesterak: All right. Well, let’s shift to the Q&A portion. We’re looking through audience questions, if you’re in the audience, please use the Q&A button to add your question for Katy and Jay. There’s so many good ones — let’s see where we’re going to start. How about here? We’re getting a lot on Covid and behavior change. “Are people more likely to change their behavior related to the pandemic if they have personal experience with it? So someone they know might work in health care or maybe even got sick or died from it. Does that tend to lead to behavior change related to the pandemic?” And, Katy, I see you nodding your head. So why don’t we start with you? And then Jay, if you want to chime in, feel free.

Katherine Milkman: I have a feeling we’ll give the same answer, but maybe with different data to support it. But, yes, that should help. One of the challenges I think associated with the pandemic and how it’s stretched on so long has related to the fact that… There’s this really great research by Ido Erev who’s in Israel, who’s studied the way we react to described versus experienced risk.

And when we have a risk described for us, we tend to be really risk-averse. We’re very nervous. We’re very cautious. And I think that’s where we were in March. None of us had experienced this scary disease but we’d read about it in the papers and heard that it could kill a huge portion of the population, we were terrified and a lot of people took drastic measures. But then the pandemic actually hit, you start reading about it, but maybe no one has actually gotten sick or been affected, and people are going out eating in restaurants or maybe they made decisions that they shouldn’t have and they were OK.

And so you start to experience the risk and things flip when we experience risk we’re much less likely actually to behave in a risk-averse way. We’re more risk-seeking, and part of that is that we don’t experience the rare negative events and so we underweight their likelihood. So when we know someone or something really bad happens to someone in our network, that shock can actually be helpful in reminding us this risk is very real even though you hadn’t experienced it before, now you are and it becomes more vivid. So that I think is a reason that people will — I don’t want to say benefit — but I’ll just say change their behavior when it comes home.

Jay Van Bavel: So I’m going to say that that was my prediction last March when I wrote that article in the Washington Post about polarization, but I have to say, and I think that works in almost every domain, and it probably works in other places, but I’m just going to tell you the data from the US looks terrifying on this. And in fact, I had to write in a paper that I was wrong about this, because we predicted that as the pandemic spread, you know, it started in very Democratic blue areas like New York City where I live, in Seattle, and I had friends and colleagues who were conservative and live in more rural areas, and they said, “It’s not a big issue, it’s a city-person issue.”

And what we found in our data is as the pandemic spread into those areas, it didn’t have any impact on their social distancing, almost at all. In fact, the partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans grew bigger, the more the pandemic spread. So this was a horrifying piece of evidence — that just being exposed to risk in your neighborhood, your environment, your county, your city, your town isn’t necessarily going to be a good evidence for you to change your behavior.

So that, that was probably the most disheartening piece of data I’ve ever had in any of my research and also something where I had to, in writing, admit that I was wrong about that. So I do think there’s trickiness, I think — for the average person in most cases that actually is a really good principle and likely true. In this particular case, I think it was wrong, at least over the timeframe you looked at it.

Katherine Milkman: Out of curiosity though, do you think that’s a decent proxy for having someone have a negative experience? Right? Because at least for me, when I talk to some of my friends who’ve made decisions, they, like, know people who’ve gotten Covid and been fine. So having it spread in our community actually didn’t give them the really negative experience, which I would have predict, it rather gave them actually exposure to the nonrare events. Anyway, so I’m just curious, what’s driving that, if it really is... If someone dies, I would still make a prediction that that might change your behavior.

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. So I think that that’s right. But the death rate is like less than 1 percent of people who get it, so I think if you could home in on those 1 percent of people and people around them, that might change their behavior. But 99 percent of people — Donald Trump embodied this. He was in the hospital on oxygen and it didn’t change any of his behavior. He just kept holding giant rallies with people who knew that he had been hospitalized from it.

So, and he hosted I think like three or four super-spreader events. So it’s one of those things that it’s hard to say, it might require a mortality, but again, he hosted event and it led to Herman Cain, a former Republican presidential nominee candidate to die from it, it looks like, and that didn’t seem to change his behavior either. So, when identity is involved, you get things that just look nonrational, I think, in the classic sense of the word.

Evan Nesterak: I’m going to take a deep breath after that one.

Jay Van Bavel: Sorry to be so dark again — I didn’t expect that.

Evan Nesterak: The next question from one of the viewers, isn’t necessarily easier, but, here it goes. They write or they ask, “I’m especially interested in the media as attempts to influence public behavior during the pandemic. For example, reporting positive cases and deaths every day, exhorting us to socially distance and wear masks, what is your take on the effectiveness of these tactics if you were in charge of the media or consulting with them, what would you do and recommend?” So I’ll let Katy hop in there. She’s nodding.

Katherine Milkman: Well, I’m a nodder also. Yeah, I guess that’s true, I try. So I do actually think it’s great that this is being kept front and center in the news. It’s actually been, I think, not great that as we’ve seen some of our highest death rates the news has been focused elsewhere, but obviously there was bigger news. So I’m not faulting the media, but I do think that when it is front and center, it makes it more likely that people will pay attention and make the right decisions — that seems to be what the evidence would suggest.

I actually really loved when there was some coverage of the rates of masking and how they were going up and how high they were in certain parts of the country and I would love to see a little bit more coverage of the measures people are taking, showing how high those rates are, I think that would be helpful too, in addition to the gruesome statistics about hospitalizations and deaths also showing some data on behaviors and how high compliance rates are, could be even more effective if the goal is to make sure people stay vigilant. I’m curious if Jay agrees with that.

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah, so I will say that the media sends some good things and bad things, and I’ll follow with Katy in saying, the bad thing they’ve done is often highlighting when people have failed to follow the guidelines, because as we know from the research on social norms, that’s exact opposite of what you want to do if you want to encourage behavior change.

And of course, it’s way more interesting to have the media zoom in on some viral video of a guy refusing to wear a mask at a Costco and yelling at everybody, but that signals that that type of behavior is actually way more normative. In reality, most people have been following the guidelines. You know, I was on the subway yesterday in New York and I’m like, “In Manhattan about 98 percent of people in the subway wear a mask.” Once I got to Brooklyn, it was like 85 percent. But still, survey after survey show the overwhelming majority of people support these things, including lots of Republicans.

We’ve been coming down on the difference between Democrats and Republicans, but lots of Republicans actually do support these health behaviors and are doing them. So I think that that’s really important to highlight those compliance and support effects more. The other thing I’d say the media has done a bad job is that the, I’ll call it like a Covid porn, for lack of a better word, like during the middle of the pandemic and the summer, they showed lots of people have pictures on beaches and outside riding their bike or running as if that was dangerous. And by then, I think we already had pretty good evidence from epidemiologists that being outside is about… reduces your risk of contracting Covid by about 20 times.

So if you’re outside, you’re not yelling at people or getting too close to them, it’s incredibly safe and important that it’s actually the place where you should be socializing with people. Go outside and do it and it’s far more safe. And so I think that the media has misrepresented the risks, because those are a great guardian article to have the clickbait with everybody at the beach as if it’s a mass-spreader event, but in reality, this is what the data is showing more and more, the mass-spreading events are in restaurants. They are in people’s dining room when they invite six or seven friends over for dinner. And so that’s actually where most Covid is being spread right now and for the last, six or seven months.

And so I think they’ve misrepresented what the real risks are to people in a way that not just people to do things that might avoid scrutiny from their neighbors, but are inside their house and are far more dangerous, 10 or 20 times more dangerous. So I think that, that’s something the media has done bad.

What I want to say the media has done good is, I’ll go back to my very first comment at this panel. We’ve engaged in one of the world’s largest behavior interventions in history. So the media deserves a lot of credit for communicating the risks very effectively. They have like dashboards and it leads a lot of the news websites, if you go to them it reads always on the top of the front page with Covid data. So I think they’ve been excellent at that.

The other thing that I hope we never change is a lot of the mainstream media has had scientists on panels and in columns, and I feel like I learn more by watching the mainstream media, before it was just pundits yelling at each other. And now there’s like an epidemiologist on, or behavioral scientists on all the shows. And I’ve never seen that. And scientists don’t look, they’re in their basement, they don’t have their hair and makeup done, but they’re giving amazing high-quality information on mainstream media in a way that I’ve never seen before.

And I just hope that we keep that, I hope that scientists from all these different fields continue to do the outreach and communication on other things going forward, because I think it’s just a remarkable, almost a revolution in public science education. And the public is not that scientifically literate, but I think that there’s been a massive increase in scientific literacy around contagion and things. And so I’m hoping that there’s going to be a bunch of silver linings of this.

And one might be, people wear masks during flu season in the future, especially if they have it and they need to go to work, they have symptoms, they have a cold or something, they’re on the train they put on their mask. So I’m hoping that we have residual habit change that carries over into the future because our scientific literacy and our behaviors have changed in a way that’s very positive. So that’s why I’m an optimist. So we’re talking about, I’m agreeable like Katy and also dispositionally optimistic.

Evan Nesterak: Let’s double-click on this idea of the messaging that people have been hearing, because we have another question from the audience and they ask, “I have been involved in public health messaging since the beginning of the pandemic. One major difficulty is the need for accessible and clear information when there are so many critical messages to convey at once, and even more different audiences receiving or rejecting those messages.” So, Katy, how do we keep it simple when it’s anything but simple — this pandemic?

Katherine Milkman: That’s a great question. I would say, I think a really important part of clear messaging is trying to figure out if you can find the most important thing you want to communicate, simplify that as much as possible. I do think we need to work with people who are great at marketing and people who are great at design to communicate with images, to communicate with graphics, beautifully, but we can’t try to inundate people with 10 different messages. It has to be that we’re delivering one, at most maybe two sound bites at a time.

So I know that’s hard because everyone wants to advise people in so many dimensions, but the best messaging is going to be more focused than that. It’s going to take one thing at a time. I mean, I think actually people can understand, like wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands. We’ve got those three and that’s doable, these are the ways to spread, I guess, and also stay outdoors when possible, but if you’re designing a campaign, ideally you’re picking one and really hammering that home and not trying to say 27 things at the same time.

Evan Nesterak: So I’m going to hop to a question and feel free to just react to this how you want, I’m curious about it. One of the readers or one of the viewers added it, but it might be one where I’m not sure we have a great answer. So do you have a message for people who work in supermarkets who find shoppers can be really aggressive about wearing masks and social distancing? Maybe there’s a way to diffuse the situation or there are situational things that can be put in place, so it doesn’t even get to that heated moment we all watch on the news or YouTube, so we are not viewing the bad behaviors and they just stay off of media. Jay or Katy, does either of you feel ready to hop in on that one?

Jay Van Bavel: I’ll add a couple of comments. So as Katy already has alluded to the effect of just ease, is one of the first things you could do. So I have been shocked that restaurants and businesses and grocery stores don’t have a box full of free masks sitting by the front door. That anybody who forgets one, because they’re just running errands or popped out, can grab it. And the first thing I would just at every single store should have a box of those cheap disposable high-quality masks, for every customer who doesn’t have one. Obviously big signs, and they should just have a policy.

The first thing you can do to control behavior is good policy. When I grew up, it was always like, “no shirt, no shoes, no service.” Every corner store at like a summer resort would have that or a restaurant and that would just mean like, you can’t come from the beach, into a place without your shirt on or you won’t get served. And so that should be very clear and explicit before you even enter a building, and signage throughout. And so those I think are the first two things.

And then the next thing is, I was on the train yesterday and someone didn’t have a mask and I just gently said, “Can you please pull up your mask?” And I’ve done that several times and every time I’ve done it, the person I’ve asked has complied. A lot of times people pull down and forget, but if you run into somebody who refuses to comply, you’re talking about somebody who’s now in a different category, right? That’s not somebody who forgot, or forgot to bring a mask from home, or forgot to pull their mask up. You’re talking about somebody who, their identity — I’ll go back to the issue of identity, for identity reasons or moral reasons or whatever — they’re signaling something to the world that they’re intentionally not compliant.

And that person is incredibly dangerous. I mean, not just in a general sense, like they might yell at you or push you or something, but they can infect you with a deadly virus. And so in that case, when I see people that aren’t really complying and aren’t responding to subtle requests or nudges, I move away from those people because I don’t want to put my life at risk having them yell and spit in my face. And so there are some battles you have to concede, but I think it’s incumbent on businesses and stuff to have clear policy and easy masks.

And then at that point, you just know that you’re going to have to call the police on that person if you run the business or whatever. And a lot of airlines have had belligerent people like that. And so they just put them on, they can’t fly with that airline for the rest of their life because they’re literally putting everybody at risk of dying on the plane. So I just think we need to make it easy for people, have clear and high-quality policies, and then assume the best in that first attempt to help them or encourage them to wear mask, at that point if they don’t, then you’re dealing with a different type of problem at that point, it’s a personal and public health risk and clearing the area and reporting is probably the only thing you can do. Unless, Katy has a solution that I don’t have.

Katherine Milkman: I love that. I have nothing to add, except I think you should ask Jay whenever you’re in a troublesome situation — and I plan to.

Jay Van Bavel: You’re going to give them my phone number, I’m sure. You can dox me.

Evan Nesterak: So, we’ve touched on some of the tougher aspects of behavior change over the past year, and so, in the course of your work, as you’ve analyzed data, as you talk to other researchers, witnessed interventions be rolled out, I’d like to know what was a bright spot for… in the past year around behavior change related to the pandemic?

Jay Van Bavel: Do you want to go Katy?

Katherine Milkman: Sure. I can think of two. One of them I think you already alluded to and I like to point out as well and I think it’s a good thing since we’re getting close to the end to bring back to this, that this whole year has been an extraordinary success in terms of behavior change. Obviously, we would have liked it to go even smoother and even farther and even faster. But it is remarkable the collective change in behavior that we have seen to save lives.

And if you run the numbers, we have saved huge numbers of lives by not having concerts and staying at home and working from home and all of the sacrifices we’ve made, it’s really... so that’s a bright spot that so many people have so been so committed and achieved so much. It could be worse than it is even, it could be better of course, but it could also be much worse and we should be proud of that at least.

And then I guess I’d say another bright spot to me scientifically actually has been how incredibly willing scientists have been to pivot and help whenever asked. So Jay, I think, has been a model of this, right? And I love his Nature Human Behaviour paper that really he and a large team immediately right at the beginning of the pandemic came together and said like, “What scientific principles can help? Let’s put this out there quickly, let’s work collaboratively to do that.”

We’ve seen similar things when we went to the Behavior Change for Good Initiative team of a 130 scientists and asked for everything from ideas about how to encourage vaccination and got 75 submissions to even less formal projects we’ve worked on where, you know, a governor’s office called and wanted help, and we just would put up a Google Sheet and ask people to write in their suggestions. Nobel laureates are writing in, within five minutes, and it’s amazing to see how committed everyone is to helping. It’s not hugely surprising in a sense because we know people do really come together around a common challenge like this, but it’s still inspiring.

And so those have been the two bright spots for me in this. One, we’ve changed a lot of behavior and saved a lot of lives. And two, the way I’ve seen scientists really just jump at the opportunity to help.

Jay Van Bavel: Yeah. I want to add to that. So first I want to affirm what Katy said, that the way that this pandemic has changed the way I do science — to be much more cooperative and collaborative, and I think I’m never going to go back. I hope we don’t. The other thing I think that is important to me is to think about what are the silver linings, what habits can we keep going? And I already talked about wearing masks.

Another one is that we’ve reduced travel. The next big crisis we’re going to face as humanity is the climate-change crisis. And we’ve got to change a lot of behavior and policies around that. On the behavior end, one way we’ve done is… I’m dying to go to my next vacation, I haven’t had dinner at another friend’s house in nine months or 10 months, I haven’t seen my family in that time, so I am dying to go on a vacation, but going forward, I’m going to reduce my travel because I actually realized we’ve innovated — necessity is the mother of invention — and now we have amazing panels like this that we can do virtually from our home that are far more inclusive, they’re cheaper, they’re easier to run, they’re less effort for all of us we don’t have to travel to an event and spend a day in transit or more and pay for hotel and train or plane costs and yet we can communicate it for everybody and then even record it and make it available online.

So I think that’s one thing I hope that people across all fields, certainly scientists, will do in the future and I hope we’ll think about how we can bring people in to speak and do panels and conferences and things like that, that don’t require the travel or that you travel every second year instead of every year. And we cut down our carbon footprint in half by doing something like that and make it more equitable and inclusive. So I think there’s lots of benefits and that’s one that I hope we carry forward.

Evan Nesterak: Well, I’m just looking at the clock. Thank you, both for... There were so many great audience questions, I’ll say that first of all, and this is just such a rich area for work, so if any young students are out there, behavioral science, there’s a lot to answer and a lot to contribute as modeled so nicely by Katy and Jay. So thank you, both, for your insights and for illuminating this past year for us. At this point, I’m going to hand it back to the Annual Reviews team — Anna Rascouët-Paz and she’s going to close us out.

Katherine Milkman: Thank you for hosting.

Evan Nesterak: Thanks.

Anna Rascouët-Paz: Hello everybody, I’m Anna Rascouët-Paz, I’m the engagement editor at Annual Reviews and I just want to thank you all again for joining us today. If you enjoyed this event, please consider making a donation to us, to help us carry out this mission to make high-quality science coverage freely accessible to all. You can do this at For information about all our future events and to keep up with these discussions and everything Knowable, please sign up to our weekly newsletter which you can do this also on our website, again,

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