Stopping COVID-19: A Behavioral Ethics Guide

We act immorally when we do unjustified harm to objects of moral worth, such as other people. In the midst of a pandemic, when we ignore the best scientific guidance and refuse to wear masks, physically distance, or avoid crowds, we act immorally unless the view “I’m going to do what I want to do because it’s a free country” justifies endangering the lives of vulnerable others. We don’t think it does.

With a worldwide coronavirus pandemic in progress, changing people’s behavior is critical. Behavioral ethics research, which underlies most of the videos and case studies on our Ethics Unwrapped website (, should provide guidance regarding how to understand and perhaps alter people’s behavior.  Fortunately, experts in the field have been studying the problem. Many articles have recently been published. We focus in this blog entry upon just three.


In a March 2020 article in Nature Human Behaviour, Dr. Cornelia Betsch, professor of Health Communication at the University of Erfurt in Germany, presciently noted the need for “fast and massive behavioural change.” She observed that this would not be easy because, as our videos on the tangible and the abstract indicate, people may not see the need to take recommended safety precautions because “we do not see and feel when we do not infect someone, when we are part of something not happening, such as transmission chains that can be deadly for our loved ones.” In other words, it may be difficult for individuals to clearly envision how their safety precautions actually save lives. The beneficial impact of their actions may seem abstract and therefore not impact their beliefs and practices as they should.

Consistent with our videos on the conformity bias, Betsch noted that convincing people that taking safety precautions is common and is the social norm is key to changing people’s behavior. If they get to asking themselves “Am I the only fool who does this?” their resolve to act safely will wither away. But the higher a percentage of other people they believe are following the best scientific advice, the more likely individuals are to do so themselves.


In April, Professor Van Bavel of N.Y.U. and colleagues in an article entitled “Using Social and Behavioural Science to Support COVID-19 Pandemic Response,” also asserted that “the crisis requires large-scale behaviour change,” and made several suggestions based on behavioral ethics research and related bodies of knowledge. Our framing video illustrates how the way people decide ethical and other issues can be strongly influenced by the framing of the choices they face. Van Bavel et al. suggest:

Negative framing captures attention, especially for people who are less mathematically skilled. The media usually report on COVID-19 negatively—for example, by reporting the number of people infected and those who die—as opposed to those who recover or experience only mild symptoms. This may increase negative emotion and sensitize people to otherwise neglected risks for themselves or others. Research is needed to determine whether a more positive frame could educate the public and relieve negative emotions while increasing public health behaviours. [See also our video on loss aversion]

Van Bavel and colleagues are particularly worried about the in-group bias, describing how the bubonic plague unleashed “massive violence” in Europe, including against religious minorities. As we have noted in an earlier blog post (“A Failure of Moral Imagination”), the pandemic has led to violence and lesser forms of discrimination against people of Asian ancestry because the virus probably originated in China. The authors recommend that we emphasize that 21 countries donated supplies to China in the early days of the pandemic and that China thereafter widely reciprocated, noting: “[h]ighlighting events like these could improve out-group attitudes and foster further international cooperation.”

As we note in our two videos on ethical leadership, people’s moral decision making is particularly influenced by their leaders. Van Bavel et al. argue “[w]ithout leadership, there is a risk that people will avoid acts of citizenship and instead embrace a philosophy of ‘everyone for themselves.’” New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has led her country in the way suggested by Van Bavel and colleagues:

Building a strong sense of shared social identity can help coordinate efforts to manage threats and foster in-group commitment and adherence to norms. Leaders can do this, for instance, by being a source of ‘moral elevation’. [see moral emotions video] Visibly displaying prosocial and selfless acts can prompt observers to also act with kindness and generosity themselves. In this way, leaders can function as role models and motivate people to put their own values into action. Having respected politicians, celebrities and community leaders model exemplary behaviour and sacrifice could help promote prosocial behaviour and cooperation.


In June, Professor Anne-Lise Sibony wrote about the UK’s response to the virus under Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The government claimed that it was basing its coronavirus response on the behavioral sciences, but cited a concept it termed behavioral fatigue, the notion that people would get tired of staying at home so any attempt at lockdown was futile. According to Sibony, “behavioural fatigue” is “a little-known phrase not found in the most comprehensive textbook” and “not a documented phenomenon.” Using bogus behavioral science, the UK ended up with the least effective response to the virus (and most deaths) in the EU.

Sibony argued that the frequent refusal of UK citizens to comply with social distancing and other anti-virus measures could be traced, in part, to the overoptimism bias (related to the overconfidence bias), and the notion of “reactance: that is, an appetite for doing the opposite of what we are told when we feel our freedom of choice is being limited.” The level of reactance varies from culture to culture (e.g., stronger in France than in Belgium), but can be increased by the actions of leading politicians (e.g., Boris Johnson) who flout the guidelines themselves.

In many states, including Georgia, state officials such as Governor Brian Kemp, have called on citizens to socially distance, wear masks, etc., but refused to mandate such actions, relying on the “good sense” of the citizenry. Sibony suggests that this is an error (as Governor Kemp finally realized after Georgia suffered an especially severe outbreak of the virus), suggesting:

[S]ound behavioural arguments in favour of enforcing lockdown and social distancing through law (rather than mere recommendations) seem to have received too little consideration. First, we all hold conflicting voices in our minds: the voice of quick, intuitive emotional decisions wants us to go and see friends and the voice of reasoned decision that weighs pros and cons rationally and argumentatively will suggest that this is not reasonable. And we know which one usually wins (this is known as dual process theory.) This is why it is a good idea to take decisions as to whether or not to see friends off people’s shoulders. Once “Stay at Home” is the law rather than a recommendation, voluntary compliance could be the result of citizens recognising the expressive function of the law. This may be a more reliable mechanism than reliance on social norms where the social norm is not well established.

Several other articles are noted in the “sources” below. Behavioral ethics research provides substantial guidance to those charged with the difficult task of mounting a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.



Cara Biasucci & Robert Prentice, Behavioral Ethics in Practice: Why We Sometimes Make the Wrong Decisions (Routledge, forthcoming)

Cornelia Betsch, “How Behavioural Science Data Helps Mitigate the COVID-19 Crisis,” Nature Human Behaviour, 4: 438 (March 27, 2020).

Courtney Bir & Nicole Olynk Widmar, “Societal Values and Mask Usage for COVID-19 Control in the US,” July 20, 2020, at

George Bluestein, “Kemp’s Latest Order Allows Local Mask Mandate for the First Time,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, August 15, 2020.

Derek Ireland, “The Behavioral Ethics Challenges of Covid-19 Crisis to Recovery,” at

Mark Landler, “U.K. Has Europe’s Worst Surge of Deaths During the Pandemic, Study Says,” New York Times, July 20, 2020.

Praveen Menon, “New Zealand’s Ardern Hits Back at Trump over Coronavirus ‘Surge,’” Reuters, August 17, 2020.

Moslem Soofi et al., “Using Insights from Behavioral Economics to Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19,” Applied Health and Economics Policy 18:345 (2020).

Jay Van Bavel et al., “Using Social and Behavioural Science to Support COVID-19 Pandemic Response,” Nature Human Behaviour, 4: 460 (April 30, 2020).


Ethics Unwrapped Resources

“A Failure of Moral Imagination” (blog post), at

Conformity Bias video:

Framing video:

In-group/Out-group video:

Loss Aversion video:

Moral Emotions video:

Overconfidence Bias video:

Subject of Moral Worth video:

Tangible & Abstract video:

Ethical Leadership videos:

Part 1:

Part II:

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