How psychology can help shape policies (2/3): Influencing behaviour

This is the second post in the series on how psychology can help shape policies. The first post focused on modelling human behaviour.

Another area in which psychology can be applied in policy making is influencing behaviour, which is the subject of persuasion research.

Who people follow

Psychologists specialising in persuasion research have explored, among other things, the impact of the personal characteristics of a message source on the credibility of the communicated message1 WILSON, E., SHERRELL, D. (1993). Source Effects in Communication and Persuasion Research: A Meta-Analysis of Effect Size. – Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 21, 101–112. DOI: 10.1007/BF02894421. . Research suggests that people are generally susceptible to persuasion by impartial experts, by people who are similar to themselves, by physically attractive people, and by those in some position of authority.

These well-established insights are still useful today. A troubling issue in Estonia and elsewhere is vaccine hesitancy on the part of parents, which is surprisingly resistant to the best efforts of doctors and other experts2 BREWER, N. T., CHAPMAN, G. B., ROTHMAN, A. J., LEASK, J., KEMPE, A. (2018). Increasing Vaccination: Putting Psychological Science into Action. – Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 18(3), 149–207. DOI: 10.1177/1529100618760521. . Part of this paradox can be explained by realizing that even though people opposed to vaccination find experts competent, they also find them to be partial advocates of conflicting interests. Persuasion research tells us that perceived partiality may undo the impact of perceived expertise. Winning back the trust of hesitant parents must therefore be considered when designing policies that aim to influence vaccination behaviour.

How and when do ad tricks influence people

One of the most prolific contributions of persuasion research is the elaboration likelihood model, which explains why logical arguments have a chance to convince only when the recipients are willing and able to scrutinise these arguments3 PETTY, R., CACIOPPO, J. (1986). The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. – Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 123–205. DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60214-2. .

In the absence of motivation or ability, people become open to influence by various tricks and gimmicks of the advertising and sales sphere (for an accessible overview, see Cialdini Influence: Psychology of Persuasion, 1984). Among such tricks, for example, is the projection of a good feeling derived from a funny commercial onto the product shown at the end of the commercial (even if the joke is completely unrelated to the brand).

Another example is the barely perceptible feeling of reciprocity when a salesperson gives someone candy or a pen, rendering the receiver slightly more susceptible to the proposition following the gift-giving, such as subscription to some service. These persuasion techniques are largely unnoticeable and unconscious, and take place on the level of automatic psychological processes.

Receiving a pen from a salesperson may seem trivial. However, you will become slightly more susceptible to his or her sales proposal even without noticing it. Image credit: Inga Külmoja
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Why you should be cautious about antibiotics: The case of Estonia

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the number of deaths related to drug-resistant infections in 2019 was approximately 33,000 in Europe and 700,000 globally.

The large-scale and unnecessary use of antibiotics contributes to the development and spread of drug-resistant pathogenic bacteria. Statistical data also confirms that countries with the lowest rate of antibiotic consumption have fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Estonia is one of the countries where the rate of antibiotic consumption and thus also the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been relatively low. This was confirmed in a survey carried out by Jana Lass, a research fellow of clinical pharmacology at the University of Tartu, on the ambulatory use of antibiotics in Estonia over the past 11 years (2008–2018).

Apart from this, experts in the field express concern: while only 15 years ago the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics was relatively modest in Estonia, their use has been increasing. The survey reveals that in 2008 the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics was only 5 times the use of narrow-spectrum antibiotics, whereas in 2018 broad-spectrum antibiotic consumption was 16 times higher than that of narrow-spectrum medicines.

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Researchers from home: You need to be more organized

Our PhD student in Mycology Saleh Rahimlouye Barabi, Research Fellow in Macroecology Riin Tamme, Junior Research Fellow in History Viktors Dāboliņš, and PhD student and Junior Research Fellow of Ancient DNA Tina Saupe talk about their life and work in home office these days.

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Student diary: Planning for school and food preparation

We’re still in the old-school paper-based calendar version. As for the food, we’re just sharing our experience – don’t mistake us for nutrition specialists.

Hello, dear readers of the UT Blog! 

It’s been a few days since we’ve made the first post about making a decision to stay here and finding sources that are good enough to keep you updated about the ongoing pandemy. We hope you liked the content! 🙂 

Today, we’d really like to “demonstrate” how a day passes for us, especially when we have to stay indoors for a quite big portion of the day. Sounds boring, right? We don’t think so! 

First of all, a big portion of our day is spent literally in front of the computer and sitting on our chairs. Wondering what we’re doing? It’s usually studying and completing tasks. All of us – students, teachers and UT staff – are going through disparate (not desperate!) situations right now, as we’re all trying to adapt to a completely new concept of online learning.

If you ask us how we’re coping with it, then we’re definitely still trying to figure out how to conduct practical things in a theoretical way. If your days are not as productive as you would like them to be – no worries! This is also a period where getting used to changes will take some time. Trust us, next week everything will be better and you’ll  feel much more normal! 

Probably the best practice we can make nowadays is to organize time! Although we’ve plenty of time to do many things, we saw that without planning, days become wasted. So, if you are not a fan of using a calendar, then this time is the perfect time to acquire the skill! Believe us, by starting every Monday with writing deadlines, courses to follow, and upcoming tests, the week becomes much clearer. 

If you’re wondering which type of calendar we’re using for school, then I guess we’re still in the old-school paper-based calendar version. By adding mini daily tasks, we can see the whole picture of the week! But if you can manage with the calendar in your phone or your computer, then it’s also perfect (and probably much easier!)

Apart from these technical issues, let us talk about some other changes that this “life with less social interaction” brought us: our daily habits of shopping and ready-made food consumption! As we really like cooking and trying out new recipes, preparing food for at least 3 courses a day was not a climb to Everest for us. However, the planning process is still taking more time than our expectations, but this definitely pushes us hard to be more productive – so that’s still great.

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Student diary: About self-care in quarantine

Me at the window of our Tartu apartment, looking for the signs of spring. Photo from a private collection

COVID-19 is omnipresent at the moment. Coronavirus has reached Tartu and we are all affected. To prevent the spread of the virus and due to the state of emergency declared by the Estonian government, not only the university, but most of our personal social life now takes place at home.

I know this situation of social isolation is new, challenging, and also a bit scary for all of us — take it from me, an international exchange student who has not even lived in Tartu for two months and was looking forward to an exciting semester abroad. Still, we have to keep in mind that this is a communal problem, not just a personal one. When experts tell us students to stay at home, we stay at home – it’s that simple. We are in this together now; responsibility and solidarity have rarely been more important than they are now. 

But instead of preaching morality here, I would rather like to give you a little personal insight into how I deal with this situation. I decided to stay in Tartu because I simply feel safer here than I would back home in Germany, where the crisis is currently more severe. I have my own room in an apartment that I share with my two absolutely amiable flatmates. I thought I’d rather sit this one out here in Tartu. However, I would also be lying if I did not admit to myself that I am hoping for this situation to improve soon.

Since the university canceled face-to-face classes I am continuing my studies online. Instead of lectures, we switched to e-learning and seminars turned into so-called webinars (online seminars held in conferences over the internet). Of course it takes time to adjust to these new methods of digital studying, but for now it’s going surprisingly well. Our lecturers and the entire teaching staff are doing their best to make this transition as convenient as possible for us students, and I think I can speak for all my classmates when I say that we really appreciate it.

Anyway, as more cases of suspected coronavirus occur, quarantine and self-isolation will become the norm in the near future. So it is up to us how we deal with this situation. Even though we’re all struggling, I believe that in every crisis also lies an opportunity. See the chance in it and embrace it. This forced break may lead to something positive; for example, I think that we will all learn more about self care.

Taking the time to nurture and take care of ourselves is crucial to our well-being, especially now. Let’s take some time to rest and recover. And then do the things we enjoy. I came up with my own little “self-care routine” that helps me to keep calm in these stressful times. For me, it is waking up when the sun tickles my face and I hear birds singing outside of my window. I’m trying to cherish these little things like creating new playlists, reading intriguing books, writing letters, or exercising. For this, I like to come up with a specific plan for each day to keep myself busy but also make sure I do things that I enjoy.

Finding a creative output can be a great way to actually enjoy all this free time. Whether it is painting, learning languages, watching movies, yoga, baking, TED talks, board games, meditation, puzzles, podcasts, online live concerts or whatever – the list is long and everything works; you just need find your own thing. The key to self-care is that it should be something you enjoy and that may look different to each of us.

I truly believe that this crisis will bring out the best in people.

Keep going, be strong, and stay safe.

Anja Tovirac is an exchange student at the University of Tartu from Germany.

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Student diary: Deciding about “going back” and getting reliable information on COVID-19

Me, Efe, on the left and me, Ege, on the right. The photo was taken at a private event, when these were still widely common. Photo from a private collection

Dear UT Blog readers,

First of all, how are you? Hope you’re all safe and feeling better! 

We’re Efe and Ege, second-year medical students at the University of Tartu. Our names might sound familiar to you – and they would, if you’ve read this post! Anyway, we’re from Turkey and have been living in Tartu for almost 2 years now. 

Now the world surrounding us is literally shaking with the on-going pandemic, COVID-19. So, according to the WHO, pandemy is the worldwide spread of a new disease when most people don’t have immunity to it. We heard many stories from the epicentre of this pandemy, Wuhan, which seemed very far, far away from the portion of world we’re living in.

However, this didn’t take long, and the virus unfortunately spread to every continent. When COVID-19 arrived to Europe, it’s debatable whether countries took adequate measures – but what’s obvious is that it brought fear and anxiety to everyone’s hearts. 

In this hard time, when social life almost stops to prevent the spread of a virus, we need information. We are curious about what’s happening in countries where our families are, or about the place we’re currently residing in. All of us had, have, and will have these questions in our heads.

The first question that usually comes to mind is: why are we here? The key point that made us stay here during the outbreak is definitely the uncertainty that it brought to our lives. Although there are very strong predictions, no one exactly knows how the situation will evolve, and, up until the time when things get clear, the safest option for us was to minimize the risk of acquiring an infection. 

Indeed, this wasn’t the easiest choice that we’ve made, it took days of video-conferencing with our parents and family, evaluating all of the options about the risks and benefits. Also, it’s still an uncertainty whether we would need to travel back due to border closure issues – so now, we’re following the dynamics and let them lead the way, while we’re concentrating on our own well-being. 

On the other hand, we kept reminding ourselves that this break is not given as a holiday, but rather that classroom teaching was moved to an online environment. Thus, we also needed to stay in a place where we can continue concentrating on our studies thoroughly – and in this particular case, Tartu seems and feels like the right place. 

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Who follows in the steps of Greta Thunberg

School strike for climate on the Town Hall square in Tartu on 15 March 2019. Image credit: Ehitaja / Wikimedia Commons CC 4.0

A year ago today, the global youth strike for climate gathered more than one million participants at 2200 events in 125 countries. It became possible after a 15-year-old Greta Thunberg sat in front of the Swedish parliament every schoolday for three weeks from 20 August 2018 to protest the lack of action on the climate crisis. She posted what she was doing on Instagram and Twitter and it soon went viral.  The movement became known as #FridaysforFuture (FFF).

An international team of researchers has recently concluded a report on the participants of the FFF climate protests. The report analyses survey data about participants in the strikes of September 2019 from 19 cities around the world and compares it to the data from an international survey conducted in 13 European cities in March 2019. Both surveys collected data following the well-established “Caught in the Act of Protest” survey methodology in order to generate representative samples.

What makes FFF new and particularly interesting is the involvement of schoolchildren and students as initiators, organizers, and participants in climate activism on a large scale. The September mobilizations differed from the March events in the explicit call for adults to join the movement. Although older age cohorts were more strongly represented in September, young people continued to make up a substantial portion of the protesters – almost one-third of demonstrators were aged 19 or under.

This, however, varied greatly by cities – while in the Swedish cities very young people formed up to 10% of respondents, in Florence, Bucharest, Copenhagen, Prague, and Warsaw at least half of the participants were under 20. A third of young participants had not taken part in any political actions before – the respective measure for those over 20 is much smaller – 9 per cent.

Age groups of participants by city in September 2019
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