Using social and behavioural science insights to navigate COVID-19

By: Kristy Gjertsen, Wed Mar 10 2021

A post by Associate Editor Charlotte Payne and Senior Editor Aisha Bradshaw from Nature Human Behaviour 

Kristy Gjertsen

Author: Kristy Gjertsen

Insights from behavioural, social and health sciences have been critical in understanding and shaping responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will continue to play an invaluable role in curbing its spread. Associate Editor, Charlotte Payne, and Senior Editor, Aisha Bradshaw have been leading the coverage of the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 through a Focus published by Nature Human Behaviour. In this blog post, read about how the journal brought together original research and expert viewpoints from a broad spectrum of disciplines to highlight how research on individual and collective behaviour can contribute to effective responses.

Aside from the biological and epidemiological factors, a multitude of social and economic criteria also govern the extent of the coronavirus spread within a population. What key research has Nature Human Behaviour published around the behavioural and socio-economic determinants of the COVID-19 pandemic?

We have published several research papers that reveal how social and economic factors are associated with differential pandemic outcomes.

One piece that is particularly relevant to this issue is an Article by Jay et al, which used smartphone data in the US to investigate whether neighbourhood income related to physical distancing. They found that work-related travel was greater among residents of low-income neighbourhoods, even under stay-at-home orders. This is one example of how socioeconomic factors - in this case, residence in a low income neighbourhood - correlate with susceptibility to COVID-19 transmission.

Another relevant Article that we have published on this also uses smartphone data - Gollwitzer at al used data from 15million smartphone users and found evidence for partisan differences in physical distancing in the US. Specifically, US counties that voted Republican exhibited 14% less physical distancing, and  these differences were associated with higher COVID-19 infection and fatality growth rates in pro-Republican counties.

We have also published two Resource articles, from Hale et al. and Cheng et al., which track policies put in place around the world to counter the pandemic. These tools can be valuable for researchers studying the history and effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions in a complex and shifting policy landscape. 

Importantly, the research we have published to date cannot speak to determinants of COVID-19 outcomes. However, it can speak to associated factors, including those related to prevention measures such as physical distancing. 

Policy & Government

Despite early warnings, the pandemic caught many governments off-guard. Nature Human Behaviour made early calls for robust empirical research on COVID-19 that had a behavioural angle and socio-economic relevance. How did the journal commit to efficient turnaround times for COVID-19-related submissions? And which articles had wide usage?

As a journal, we recognized early on that behavioural scientists would have a crucial role to play in navigating and understanding the pandemic. We worked together as a team to rapidly expand our capacity to prioritize pandemic-relevant work. Charlotte in particular spearheaded key efforts in this regard, working with our chief editor to coordinate a focus issue on COVID-19 and human behaviour. 

Of course, the urgency and fast-changing nature of the situation meant that we had to make changes to the way we worked. Everyone involved in the journal put in intensive effort as we began to receive more submissions. As we worked to prioritize COVID-19 content, we necessarily had to adjust our other priorities. This would not have been possible without the patience and understanding of our authors and reviewers working on non-COVID-19 research. The support of our entire community has been a light in the midst of a dark year, and we are very grateful for this understanding as we’ve worked to mutually navigate this tumultuous situation. 

Throughout this process, we worked to communicate with the community,  explaining our commitment to rapid publication of research that could inform the response to the pandemic and highlighting our willingness to work with authors and reviewers to accommodate their changing schedules. We provided details of our commitments, such as a 24-hour turnaround time for initial submissions of COVID-19 papers, in our editorial “Science in the time of COVID-19.”. Now that the pandemic enters its second year, we’ve updated our commitments to reflect the long-term nature of the challenge in a new editorial “COVID-19 is a marathon, not a sprint”

These efforts have paid off, and we have published articles that have had widespread usage during the pandemic. For example, “Ranking the effectiveness of worldwide COVID-19 government interventions” has been accessed over 270,000 times, and “Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response” is the most accessed paper in the journal’s history. Similarly, the Perspective “Applying principles of behaviour change to reduce SARS-CoV-2 transmission” has been widely viewed and referenced in research since its publication last May.

The behavioural and social sciences community has rapidly responded to the crisis by sharing insights from the existing literature and by mobilizing swiftly to collect new evidence to guide policy and assist communities in handling the pandemic. What role has Nature Human Behaviour played in support of these efforts?

We have done our best to support the behavioural and social sciences community in this time of crisis. As outlined in our editorial at the time, we agreed with experts in the community that human behaviour could be key to handling the pandemic in the absence of pharmaceutical interventions, which was one reason that we committed to rapid turnaround times, as we’ve just discussed. In addition to this, we put out a call on social media for primary research articles on COVID-19 and human behaviour, and organised a Focus issue. The Focus is a collection titled ‘COVID-19 and Human Behaviour’ and comprising primary research and expert commentaries, which remains free-to-access for the duration of the pandemic under Springer Nature Policy. At the beginning, we sought experts in key fields of relevance to contribute opinion pieces on topics that we considered to be of high relevance. In addition to the Perspectives mentioned above, these included, for example, a Q&A piece with the WHO Regional Director for Africa on the African response to the pandemic, as well as commentary pieces on the importance of understanding individual risk perception, the role and mandate of governments, the need to recognise ambiguities, the potential origins of the pandemic in the monetization of ecosystems, and the predictive power of the stock market, all in the context of the unfolding pandemic. When we decided to send primary research articles related to COVID-19 out to reviewers, we committed to first sending all relevant material to the WHO within 24 hours. We took these actions at short notice and under tight deadlines in the hope that timely publication of these commentaries and primary research would be of value to the behavioural and social sciences community.


What does the research published in Nature Human Behaviour tell us about the role of demographic and socioeconomic factors relating to COVID19 outcomes?

We have published papers (in addition to the Articles by  Jay et al and Gollwitzer at al that we highlighted in the first question) that show us how demographic and socioeconomic outcomes are associated with COVID-19 outcomes. 

One such article is by Allen et al and uses data from a web and mobile application to show how self-reported surveys can be used to predict risk factors for COVID-19 in the US. In addition to symptoms, they identified occupational and demographic risk factors: healthcare and essential workers were identified as being at increased risk, as were Hispanic/Latinx and African-American/Black individuals. 

We have also published an Article from de Souza et al in Brazil, which describes the epidemiological and clinical characteristics of the COVID19 epidemic and includes data on socioeconomic factors. One striking result from this paper was a positive association between high per capita income and COVID-19 diagnosis.

We feel it’s important to again emphasise that nothing that we have published so far tells us about the causal influence of demographic and socioeconomic factors on COVID-19 outcomes. However, given the evidence for the association of such factors with COVID-19 outcomes, we feel there is a clear priority for future research in this area to examine the efficacy of strategies to prevent and combat these negative health outcomes in at-risk groups.

The individual

One key step individuals can take to contain the COVID-19 pandemic is their use of digital contact tracing apps. However, the low rates of app installation have undermined the efficacy of such tools. Has Nature Human Behaviour documented the barriers to adoption? Have levers like financial incentives been used to increase uptake?

Contact tracing is a topic where behavioural science can be very important, because effectiveness hinges on participation. In “Tracking and promoting the usage of a COVID-19 contact tracing app”, Simon Munzert and colleagues combined survey and real world mobile phone data to find that people were more likely to use Germany’s contact tracing app if they were at increased risk of severe illness, but less likely to use it if they had high risks of exposure. What really sets this study apart is that they also tested different strategies to encourage more people to use the app. They found that information about the app and motivational messages had little effect, but providing even a small monetary incentive (a one-time reward equivalent to €1-5) increased uptake of the app. We are keen to publish studies with clear practical applications, and this paper neatly falls within this category.

A broad spectrum of disciplines have provided insight into the causes, impacts, and mitigation of the pandemic. Can you highlight research published by Nature Human Behaviour on how individual and collective behaviour can contribute to effective responses?

Throughout the pandemic, this has been a key question driving our motivation to publish research on COVID-19 - what can we do about it? At the beginning of the pandemic, modelling studies played an especially prominent role, since the novelty of the illness meant that there was little empirical data available to inform responses. One study we published in this domain is “Social network-based distancing strategies to flatten the COVID-19 curve in a post-lockdown world”, which models the effectiveness of three different network-based strategies for reducing the spread of COVID-19 through social contacts. As more data has become available about the policies that have been tried and the course of the pandemic in different countries, scholars have turned to evaluating the effectiveness of different approaches to pandemic control. For instance, in “Ranking the effectiveness of worldwide COVID-19 government interventions,” Nils Haug and colleagues examined the effectiveness of over 6,000 non-pharmaceutical interventions enacted around the world and found that combinations of less intrusive measures can be as effective as more drastic interventions, such as full lockdowns. Finally, we’ve also published research that empowers individuals to improve their own understanding of the risks of COVID-19. “Real-time, interactive website for US-county-level COVID-19 event risk assessment”, by Aroon Chande and co-authors, presents a tool that calculates the risk of exposure to a COVID-19 positive person given the current state of the pandemic at a particular geographic location and the number of people present in a gathering. We hope that papers like these will ultimately contribute to more effective responses by both individuals and governments. 

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About Associate Editor, Charlotte Payne

Charlotte’s background is in Anthropology, Public Health, Primatology and Zoology. Before joining Nature Human Behaviour in 2019 she conducted research on the implications of using insects as food for our health, food security, and environmental footprint. This was the focus of her PhD thesis in Zoology at the University of Cambridge, and she has conducted field-based research on this topic in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Japan, Zimbabwe, Mexico and Burkina Faso. Prior to this she assisted with health related research projects at the University of Oxford, where she worked with large scale epidemiological data and high-throughput genomic data. She spent time in Japan as a Daiwa scholar in 2009-2011 and as a MEXT research student in 2013-2015, and speaks fluent Japanese. She did her undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge in 2006-2009, where she conducted field- and zoo-based research on great ape behaviour, ecology and genetics. She has a broad range of interests and is passionate about the importance of meaningful, interdisciplinary and equitable research.

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About Senior Editor, Aisha Bradshaw 

Aisha’s background is in political science, with an emphasis on international relations, conflict studies, and quantitative methodology. She was initially drawn to political science by the field’s strong interdisciplinary elements, and her interests remain broad. She began her studies with a B.A. in political science at the University of Chicago and completed her PhD at Ohio State University, where her research focused on the strategic provision of social services by violent groups. Additional research projects examined international alliance networks and causal inference methods for observational data.

Kristy Gjertsen

Author: Kristy Gjertsen

Kristy Gjertsen is a Senior Content Marketing Manager on the Institutional Sales & Marketing team based in New York. She brings to the Academic and Government markets insights and activities specific to the Librarian community, whilst raising awareness of Springer Nature’s products and services.