Topics: COVID-19, Research

August 3, 2020

Statue wearing a face mask.

Want to get someone to wear a mask or practice social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic? Argue that face coverings and keeping six-feet apart will protect others, says new research from Ball State University.

According to “Moral Persuasion for Social Distancing Adherence,” people place more emphasis on the health of others than themselves, especially when they see public health as a moral issue. The research will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Lead author Andrew Luttrell, a Ball State assistant professor of psychological science, noted that people often care more about halting the spread of the virus to other people, and this approach was more likely to lead to action.

“These findings highlight two important lessons for encouraging people to practice social distancing in the midst of the pandemic,” Luttrell said. “First, they show the power of appealing to people’s interests in helping other people. Second, they show that health communication is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor. Arguments focused on helping other people were only superior when the audience already saw public health as a moral issue.”

Luttrell and co-author Richard E. Petty, a distinguished professor of psychology at Ohio State University, tested the persuasiveness of arguments for practicing social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Participants read a brief message encouraging them to practice social distancing. One version of this message highlighted the potential for social distancing to keep the recipient from contracting COVID-19 himself or herself. Another version of the message instead emphasized that social distancing would prevent the spread of the virus to other people.

Luttrell said previous research found that the latter type of argument—an “other-focused” argument—is particularly persuasive when it comes to other kinds of health behaviors. However, he and Petty thought that those arguments would be interpreted as “moral arguments” and thus only appeal to people who see public health as a moral issue.

Future research may uncover messaging strategies that more strongly appeal to other subgroups in the population, he said.

“Our studies relied on samples from the United States, but of course, health messaging is an area of global importance,” Luttrell said. “We suspect that people in other parts of the world will similarly interpret other-focused vs. self-focused messages more as moral appeals. In fact, because independence and self-reliance tend to be important values in the U.S., our samples provide an especially strong test of our hypothesis. However, future work should examine the generalizability of our findings to other cultural contexts.”