Covid-Norms: monitoring and analysing preventive behaviour

This project investigated how social norms of preventive behaviours have developed during the Covid-19 pandemic in Switzerland and which role the media played in this regard. We therefore combined weekly surveys of the Swiss population and a continuous content analysis of the Swiss media.

  • Background

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    Social norms are promising means in health crisis management and communication. First, they are a key mechanism to coordinate collective action, which is required to combat collective threats. Second, social norms provide guidance in times of crisis and uncertainty, as they convey information about others’ behavior and attitudes. Third, they regulate compliance with preventive measures socially instead of forcing them by means of legal rules. Hence, they represent a legitimate long-term measure of risk control in democratic societies.

  • Aim

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    The project’s aim was to gain a profound understanding of how social norms of preventive behaviour have developed in Switzerland during the Covid-19 pandemic and which role the media (i.e., news media, social media) played in this process. In this way, the project aimed to provide evidence-based guidance for monitoring and influencing norms of prevention behaviour in the Swiss population.

  • Results

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    Our weekly survey of prevention behaviour in the Swiss population revealed that the majority of the population complied with the Covid-19 measures, such as social distancing, mask wearing and getting vaccinated. We thus can speak of high prevention norms in the Swiss population. At the same time, the continuous content analysis of the Swiss news media showed that the Covid-19 measures were important topics in the media – especially the Covid-19 vaccination campaign dominated the media discourse for a long time after its introduction at the end of 2020. Correlational analyses between survey and content analysis data revealed that news media turned out to play a particular role in the process of norm formation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Based on the weekly survey data and the continuous content analysis of the media reporting, we found causal effects of news media reporting on the Covid-19 vaccination campaign on perceived vaccination norms in the population using a time series analysis. Results from further cross-sectional surveys on media effects on normative perceptions and prevention behaviours (e.g., social distancing, using the contact-tracing app) also show that attention to media was correlated with perceptions of prevention norms, which in turn were associated with individual prevention behaviour.

    The findings point to the communicative strategic potential of social norms in risk interventions: By shaping normative perceptions through communication, compliance with preventive measures can be supported. Therefore, we tested this idea in an online experiment, in which we compared different norms-based campaign messages and their effects on the intention to get vaccinated. However, we found no effects of exposure to these campaign messages on vaccination intention. This points to the challenge to affect established normative perceptions that are, among others, the result of continuous and cumulative exposure to news media reporting.

  • Specific contribution to tackle the current pandemic

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    We published the monitoring data on the project website Link Icon on a weekly basis. This website was heavily visited by health authorities, like the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), journalists, and the general public. We further were in close exchange with the FOPH and provided specific analyses, results, and assessments on demand. This collaboration ensured rapid translation of scientific insights into evidence-based guidance for disease prevention.

  • Original title

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    A Normative Approach to Disease Prevention: Monitoring and Influencing the Factors and Dynamics of Social Norms regarding Preventive Behaviours

  • Website NRP 78 Research

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