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A synthesis of evidence for policy from behavioral science during COVID-19

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Ruggeri, David 


Scientific evidence regularly guides policy decisions1, with behavioral science increasingly part of this process2. In April 2020, an influential paper3 proposed 19 policy recommendations ("claims") detailing how evidence from behavioral science could contribute to efforts to reduce impacts and end the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, we assess 747 pandemic-related research articles that empirically investigate those claims. We report the scale of evidence and whether evidence supports them to indicate applicability for policymaking. Two independent teams, involving 72 reviewers, found evidence for 18 of 19 claims, with both teams finding evidence supporting 16 (89%) of those 18. The strongest evidence supported claims that anticipated culture, polarization, and misinformation would be associated with policy effectiveness. Claims suggesting trusted leaders and positive social norms increased adherence to behavioral interventions also had strong empirical support, as did appealing to social consensus or bipartisan agreement. Targeted language in messaging yielded mixed effects and there were no effects for highlighting individual benefits or protecting others. No available evidence existed to assess the distinction in effects between "physical distancing" and "social distancing." Analysis of the 465 papers containing data showed generally large samples (mean=20,916 participants; median=1,914). That statistical power underscored improved suitability of behavioral science research for informing policy decisions. Furthermore, by implementing a standardized approach to evidence selection and synthesis, we amplify broader implications for advancing scientific evidence in policy formulation and prioritization.


Acknowledgements: We thank Z. Ji, M. Nair Dedhia, A. Lazara, G. Wilson, J. Usseglio, A. Asfa Durrani and M. Kobotis, as well as Corpus Christi College and the Centre for Business Research, University of Cambridge; and S. Kousta. K.R. reports financial support from the National Science Foundation (2218595). P.B. reports funding from (1) Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education) — 88887.310255/2018; (2) Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior (Brazilian Federal Agency for the Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education) — 1133/2019; and (3) the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation | Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development) — 309905/2019-2. E.P. reports financial support from National Science Foundation grants (SES-2017651 and SES-2022478). K.M.D. reports financial support from the European Research Council (101018262). R.S.R. reports financial support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (172681). Elements of Fig. 1 come from Apple Keys software.


Humans, COVID-19, Pandemics, Behavioral Sciences, Policy

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Nature Research