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Using Cognitive Dissonance to Increase COVID-19 Safety Compliance

A Princeton grad student and her professor used cognitive dissonance and experimental manipulation to increase COVID-19 safety compliance.

Princeton researchers used cognitive dissonance to increase COVID-19 safety compliance among individuals who believed these methods work but did not follow them.

Joel Cooper, a professor of psychology at Princeton, and his second-year graduate student, Logan Pearce, constructed a study that combines advocacy and mindfulness as a tool to encourage people to practice social distancing, wear masks, and receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The researchers sought to target the individuals who agree that wearing masks and getting vaccinated help prevent the spread of COVID-19, but their beliefs do not align with their actions, which is known as cognitive dissonance.

Cooper referenced a study in which between 80 and 90 percent of adults agreed that wearing a mask was an effective method for fighting COVID-19, but only half of the respondents said that they always or mostly wore a mask when around other people.

“It is critical to get people to behave in accordance with the CDC guidelines, not just believe that they are the right things to do,” Cooper stressed in the press release.

Pearce found 101 participants ages 18 to 67 using the online survey tool Prolific. The participants were split into four different groups: advocacy, mindfulness, dissonance, and control.

During the first wave of the survey, all participants viewed a World Health Organization video that explained important COVID-19 safety measures.

Following the video, the researchers prompted the participants in the advocacy group to write three sentences about why it is important to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines. Participants in the mindfulness group wrote three sentences about a time when they did not follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Participants in the dissonance group completed the advocacy task first, followed by the mindfulness task. The control group did not complete any activities after watching the video.

The second wave of the study took place a week after the individuals completed the first survey. The researchers contacted the participants and asked them about their behaviors related to COVID-19 safety guidelines in the past week.

The researchers asked about the participants’ opportunities to follow safety guidelines and if they complied with the guidelines. For example, getting curbside delivery of groceries was an opportunity, and wearing a mask during the delivery was considered complying.

The participants also noted whether they had received a COVID-19 vaccine or made an attempt to get the vaccine during the week after the first phase of the study.

Cooper and Pearce found that the participants in the dissonance group were more likely to have complied with safety guidelines and sought out vaccination appointments compared to the participants in the other groups.

Following the success of their study, the Princeton researchers want to use cognitive dissonance on a wider scale to improve COVID-19 safety guideline compliance. Pearce wants to create a contest in which people create videos, essays, poems, or drawings that convey the importance of getting vaccinated.

To incorporate cognitive dissonance, Pearce would require contestants to include examples of when they did not follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, which she hopes would influence participants to improve their behaviors and encourage others to as well.

“I can use cognitive dissonance in my life to change my own behavior, and I want to help other people do that, too,” Pearce concluded in the press release.

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