top of page

COVID-19: How to promote self-isolation and social distance

By Anadaniela Del Carpio.

We conducted an experimental study to evaluate whether behavioral science principles can enhance communication pieces.

social distance, COVID-19,  behavioral science
Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash

Public entities in Latin America and the world have seen the need to increase the development of communications for citizens to perform specific behaviors to deal with the spread of COVID-19. Despite these efforts, citizens often fail to comply with these measures in their entirety. This situation could become even worse once the mandatory restrictions of each government begin to be relaxed.

In response to this situation, at Heurística we asked ourselves whether appealing to some principles of behavioral science could increase the effectiveness of communications to promote the adoption of necessary preventive measures among citizens. Thus, over a period of approximately two weeks, we designed and implemented an experimental online survey to identify what type of communications would be the most effective, in a hypothetical post-quarantine scenario, to increase the likelihood that the recommended physical distancing would be maintained.

The research conducted involved two independent experimental studies ("The Messenger Effect" and the "Joint vs. Separate Evaluation"). The final sample of both studies consisted of 586 participants; where 375 were women, 206 men and 5 people were identified under 'Other'.

Some additional characteristics of the sample:

  • Residents from 27 countries participated, with 77% of the total participants living in Peru.

  • The ages of the participants ranged from 18 to 70+ years (M: 35.6 years, SD: 14).

  • Fifty-nine percent of the participants indicated that they were living with a person belonging to an at-risk group.

  • The vast majority (92.8%) indicated having sought information about COVID-19 at least once during the past week.

  • 78% considered their personal actions to be of high importance in the fight against COVID-19.


Experiment #1: The messenger effect

The messenger effect. This effect refers to the notion that the evaluation regarding the validity or relevance of a message is not only made on the basis of what the message "says", but also on the basis of "who says it" (Kassin, 1983; Dolan et al., 2010; Hafner et al., 2017). That is, exactly the same message, communicated by different people can generate differentiated perceptions and behaviors.

Objective. To assess whether different messengers of the same text produce changes in intention to attend a hypothetical social gathering in the post-quarantine stage.


  • A hypothetical situation was presented to all participants under the premise that it was two weeks after the end of the quarantine period in their country. In it, they were presented with the opportunity to attend a social gathering.

  • The participants were then randomly divided into two groups and shown the same message (which called for them to stay at home), but with a different messenger. In Condition 1, the messenger was the Ministry of Health of their country and in Condition 2, the messenger was their best friend (participants were unaware of the existence of the other condition).

  • Finally, the participants responded to a series of questions. The responses of each group were compared with each other.

Main results.

  • A message delivered by the Ministry of Health would be more effective in preventing attendance at social events, compared to the same message delivered by a best friend (p = 0.04).

  • Specifically, the message delivered by the Ministry of Health reduced by 19% (4.2 percentage points) the probability of attending a social gathering, compared to the same message delivered by a best friend.

  • Likewise, a message issued by the Ministry of Health would be more likely to go viral, compared to the same message issued by a best friend (p < 0.005).

  • Specifically, the message issued by the Ministry of Health increased by 22% (10.3 percentage points) the probability that whoever sees the message will share it on their favorite social networks, and by 9% (5.2 percentage points) the probability that someone else who sees the message will share the same post; compared to seeing the same message issued by a best friend.


This experiment finds that at a post-quarantine stage the identity of the sender of a message is important and has a significant effect on behavioral intentions (regardless of content).

Despite the known impact of peer groups (especially a best friend) on persuasion, in this particular context, the experiment finds that a country's Ministry of Health is more effective in promoting COVID-19 prevention behaviors.

In this sense, choosing the right sender according to the target audience is a potential contributor to promote prevention behaviors such as avoiding attending social gatherings and/or viralizing messages on social networks.

Experiment #2: Evaluation as a whole vs. separately.

The evaluation of stimuli together and separately.

When evaluating the options or stimuli presented to us, there are two main ways:

  • Separate evaluation mode: the options are presented in isolation (i.e., only one option is presented at a time).

  • Joint evaluation mode: multiple options (two or more) are presented and evaluated simultaneously and compared with each other.

Studies have found that making evaluations together tends to facilitate the understanding of attributes that are unfamiliar to the person and/or highlight their importance (Hsee et al., 1999). In other words, many characteristics of an object or situation are "unveiled" when examined in contrast (e.g., the intensity of an apple's red becomes more evident to us when it is next to others).

Objective. To evaluate what type of visual communication facilitates identification and understanding of the desired behavior (i.e., social distance of at least 1 meter).


  • A short text about a hypothetical situation was presented to all participants in which they observed a group of people queuing in a public place at the end of the quarantine period.

  • Participants were then randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups. Each participant was presented with only one of the following conditions (C1=image A, C2=image B or C3=image A + image B).

  • Finally, the participants responded to a series of questions. The responses of each group were compared with each other.

Main results.

  • The results of the experiment indicate that visual communication pieces that highlight both the desired and undesired behavior together (A + B) are perceived as more effective in explaining the behavior to be performed, compared to those communications that only emphasize the desired (B only) or undesired behavior in isolation (A only).

  • Specifically, condition 3 showed an increase of 52% (1.3 points) over condition 1 (p < 0.0001), and 9% (0.3 points) over condition 2 (p = 0.001), in relation to the effectiveness of the image in understanding the behavior to be performed.


The experiment suggests that providing a complete visual frame of reference is able to convey information more effectively. Even without explicitly stating which image shows the appropriate behavior and which does not, the simple contrast between the two stimuli (Image A + Image B) provides greater clarity and allows for a better understanding of what is being conveyed.

The results can be directly applied to design more effective visual communication pieces on what to do (and what not to do) to prevent the spread of COVID-19.


Behavioral sciences have already demonstrated their potential impact in a variety of settings and contexts. This experimental research contributes to the generation of evidence of how some principles correctly applied in communications could generate desired behaviors in a cost-effective manner.

Thus, in a post-quarantine context, in which the widespread adoption of specific behaviors by citizens will be needed, appealing to the use of good messaging and the design of contrasting stimuli would be a good bet by communications teams to enhance the work already being done.

If you want to know more about the study you can download the report in the english version here:

ENG_Experimental study report COVID-19
Download PDF • 1.57MB


Let's stay close! Join our community at


bottom of page