The danger of ambiguous communication: neuroscience and the true public response to covid-19.

Posted by Michal Matukin on the 16th April, 2020
Understanding uncertainty makes brands less vulnerable.

These are new and unusual times for us all. We’re all uncertain about how coronavirus will affect us and how our lives will change in the coming weeks and months, but one commendable certainty is that seems to have struck a chord is that it’s vitally important to support and understand each other.

Our ‘Understanding the Nation’ tracker which captured public opinion before Boris’ first address two weeks ago helped us begin to understand the emotional landscape of the world facing a pandemic. This research showed uncertainty was rife, even then, with over 1/3 of the nation feeling uncertain and worried. Building on these findings, we wanted to go beneath the surface, applying reaction time testing and leveraging neuroscience, to gain a deeper understanding of Britain’s attitudes and emotional reactions towards the crisis. Specifically, looking at what aspects of the current situation really hit home, and which we recognise without true conviction.

To do this, we ran an online, nationally representative survey enhanced with implicit measurements to see which of the common opinions regarding coronavirus truly resonates among people on emotional level. As people answered a series of statements, we measured what they said AND the confidence of their response to give us additional insights. Applying neuroscience in this way reveals an implicit dimension to the answer, which adds a layer of understanding to help us better comprehend human attitudes. Often, when people are asked, they state something that seems like a strong opinion, however, Reaction Time can uncover doubts and uncertainty hidden behind these rational declarations – giving us a more accurate picture. In short, confident (faster) answers indicate higher quality connection between rational and emotional views, eventually resulting in stronger opinions, more durable attitudes and more accessible associations, that result in deeper influence on an actual behaviour. Slower answers, on the other hand, can indicate the reverse.

We’re searching for guidance, and we know where to look.
At an early age, when things go wrong, we look for a parent or guardian to guide us. Cut finger? Dad can find a plaster. Relationship issues? Mum is a shoulder to cry on. This inherent response is no different as we age, regardless of the severity of the subject matter. In times of crisis, we are searching for guidance from world leaders and authority figures on this complete unknown. In short, Covid-19 is no exception to the rule and our reaction time data is testament to this.

The need for security is a fundamental human one, and this is why we seek guidance and advice, especially in difficult times. Without such guidance, people feel anxious and stressed, in this case, potentially escalating the risks of the coronavirus outbreak beyond just physical and into the psychological, damaging our mental health.

This is what is happening now: people are looking for advice on how to act. They need reassurance in a truly unprecedented situation. Who can provide such advice in the light of the pandemic we are experiencing? Our data suggests the Government as one of the top choices. Almost 90% of respondents confirmed they are following the Government’s advice, and their internal conviction about this attitude is exceptionally high too. This means that on emotional level the Government’s recommendations appear to be a well resonating remedy that could help to fight uncertainty.

So why is there still unrest and confusion? A simple glance out the window, despite all our surveying, can demonstrate that not all are practicing isolation or social distancing. Today, alone I’ve witnessed families, couples, friends and workers clustered together as they stroll down the street. Whilst many have opted not to actively heed the government’s warnings, others barricade the doors from the rest of the world – is there a way to cut through the ambiguity to manage reactions properly? Our data tells us more…

The symptoms of ambiguous communications.
Does usage of public transport increase the chances to catch coronavirus? Should I be worried that there will not be enough essential products in stores? Or that I won’t be able to meet with my family or friends? When faced with these questions, regardless of whether people agreed or disagreed with the statement, the majority of the answers given showed hesitation.

This suggests that the public’s emotional attitudes are not settled, and the finer implications of this pandemic are still unclear to them. This type of uncertainty underlies many of our rational declarations, regardless of the context. But, in this case, combined with a strong, natural fear of the invisible enemy, it’s fair to conclude that we simply don’t feel safe anymore.

Communications regarding whether face masks prevent infection is also ambiguous and unclear, and we, the public, are feeling that ambiguity. Announcements overtly state they do not work, but at the same time, we also see news stories where all medical personnel wear masks for protection. Our data recorded implicit doubts with regards to this, whilst 56% agree they don’t work, this agreement is proffered with hesitation. Are people simply echoing the claims they’re hearing? Or are they drawing conclusions from what they see in the media? Either way, it shows that how we deliver the message is just as important as the message itself.

Two further messages which, encouragingly, buck the trend have been communicated across every media outlet: to avoid infection, you should stay at home and wash your hands frequently. Simple, yet effective messages. So, it’s not surprising that almost 90% of respondents agreed with these statements and they didn’t hesitate either, showing their emotional conviction and belief in these measures was very high. The communication did its job and the main message was effectively persuasive.

Keep it simple.
Regardless of context, our brain loves simple solutions that can save energy. This is one of the key principles we always emphasize and embed in our research too. Harnessing this idea reveals a straightforward conclusion – keep the message clear, authentic and true to the audience. If the communication conveys a message that is understandable and easy to adopt, then it has a higher potential to affect behaviour.

It helps to hardwire attitudes and action, and successful communication is all about that. Whether it’s advertising a new product, building a brand image, fighting with inequalities or trying to protect human lives; there are basic human needs we must understand to communicate effectively. Our findings show that, when dealing with human attitudes such as uncertainty, we cannot rely only on declarations and rational opinions. There are emotional processes that go far beyond our conscious mind yet still they have a major impact on our behaviour. These processes can be captured and understood only thanks to implicit techniques. Cultivating human understanding in the face of a pandemic is crucial and implicit tools play invaluable role here: understanding and knowledge reduces uncertainty, understanding uncertainty makes brands less vulnerable.

In summary, ambiguity is dangerous: peoples’ concerns should be straightforwardly addressed to foster the adoption of countermeasures in the context of covid-19. At this point, the significant criticism of the Government seen across media points can be boiled down to confusing communications – this study shows how crucial it is to keep the communication simple and deliver the message in a clear way. So, what is the best way the Government can provide this much sought-after reassurance? The same way many brands are delivering messages of support and solidarity to their customers – through clear, authentic communication.

“Clarity and simplicity are the antidotes to complexity and uncertainty.” – General George Casey

Meet the Author: Michal Matukin
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