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Now that the Vaccine Pathway is Clearer, What is the Exit Narrative?

This psychologically-informed post offers suggestions for reframing the current narrative for strategic, high level Covid-19 communications. My analysis describes the current successful minority influence approach, but also the risks of continuing along this path.

I propose moving from a story of safeguarding to a narrative of the potential benefits that are unlocked through vaccine uptake and continued public health measure adherence. 

This is all my own personal point of view and analysis of what’s happened so far, and where I think we could be going in terms of an effective pandemic exit strategy.

Let me start by assuming that the end-state public health objectives are effective herd immunity, widespread uptake of Pfizer / BioNTech vaccination programme, and acceptance for the need of yearly booster vaccinations to sustain this. 

The future is uncertain, but what is certain is that we can make sense of the future through our ‘antenarratives’. Antenarrative is the process by which retrospective narrative (what has been used to make sense of where we are right now, e.g. the team of 5 million) is linked to living stories (our current experience, which is in between community outbreaks and moving towards a widespread vaccination programme).

New Zealand made an early decision to make sense of and stabilise the nation’s experience of uncertainty through tracking along an ‘antenarrative’ along the lines of “change is constant and we must follow the data in future”, reflected in alert level changes, public health measures associated with this, alongside economic and wider supports. 

This narrative story of the “team of 5 million” has got us so far. This has been a narrative of normalising change. However, there is an increasing risk that this narrative is now being perceived as stale and outdated, as the situation is not as dynamic as it once was. 

What is the alternative to this narrative, and where does any potential narrative lead us, given the current situation of low levels of risk of community spread, and mass vaccination commencing in 3-4 months from now? 

An alternative antenarrative might now start to reduce some of the resurgent uncertainty about what happens next, creating a narrative about anticipated benefits of new measures taken by the Government, and where this may lead us. 

This then requires a stronger change in emphasis from risks of not adhering to or accepting public health measures including vaccines, to potential benefits that are unlocked through vaccine uptake and continued public health measure adherence in the future

This is ‘prospective sensemaking,’ a calculated bet on the future with plausible strategic storytelling that can adapt to unexpected roadblocks.

New Zealand can tell this exit story in terms of both ‘normalised change’ initiatives including comparison with other comparable countries in the world and how well we are doing on many different measures of successful management of the pandemic, and ‘anticipated benefits’ for individuals, families and communities, as well as to the national economy. 

Telling the NZ exit story of the pandemic and what needs to happen to get there becomes a story of pragmatic hope, drawing a clear picture of what life might look like post-2021. 

What level of buy-in would be needed to carry an ‘unlock New Zealand’ exit narrative? 

What level of buy-in would be needed to effectively carry this story to promote helpful behaviour change and adherence through the period where  risks become lower as key workers and communities are vaccinated, and as vaccines become more widely available for all communities?

In trying to understand what is happening with physical distancing, mask wearing on public transport, hand washing, and scanning in, it’s worth asking this question to understand our behaviour, and why this appears to be falling way (e.g. scanning in only after cases appear): what’s our level of buy-in?

There appear to be three levels of buy-in that have been identified by psychologists.

First, there is compliance, which is the most surface level of buy-in. This is when a person may agree in public with a group of people, but the person privately disagrees with the group’s viewpoint or behaviour. The individual changes their views, but it is a temporary change. Here we can see the power of social norms – everyone seems to be scanning in, so I’ll do it too. Perhaps this is also what is going on when we see big reductions in QR code scanning behaviour after Alert Levels fall back down again. The privately held view that this is necessary now starts to dominate, and is a widely held enough view that the social norm effect disappears, because enough people have changed their behaviour to non-scanners that the power of seeing lots of people around you using QR codes is no longer there to nudge you to alter your behaviour. 

Second, we have identification. This is where someone conforms to the demands of a social role in society, e.g. teacher, police officer, or politician. This compliance extends over several aspects of their behaviour, but there is no change to their internal personal opinion. We may see behaviour appear in private that would not be permissible or would be socially frowned upon when a person is ‘in-role’. This underlies the success of the ‘team of 5 million’ narrative and extended membership of this social role.

Third, and a deeper level of buy-in is what is known as internalisation. This is where we publicly change our behaviour to fit in with wider social norms, and in addition we agree with the group beliefs privately too. Perhaps an example of this is how we behaved during the initial phases of the pandemic in New Zealand, where we saw widespread (but not universal) changes in behaviour in order to keep others and ourselves safe. For a large majority, this has remained their default behaviour as it has been internalised.

Is it necessary to achieve internalisation for an exit phase from the pandemic? Possibly not. Read on.

What kind of social influence is effective to promote buy-in to behaviours that keep us safe? 

Normative social influence is where a person conforms to fit in with the group because they don’t want to appear foolish or be left out. Normative social influence is usually associated with compliance, where a person changes their public behaviour but not their private beliefs.

For example, a person may feel obliged to scan in or wear a mask on public transport because most other people appear to be doing the same. Normative social influence tends to lead to compliance because the person scans-in or wears a mask just for show but deep down they don’t wish to do so. This means any change of behaviour is temporary and reverts once social pressure eases. The level of buy-in is likely to be public performance only at a level of compliance.

Informational social influence is where a person conforms because they have a desire to be right, and look to others who they believe may have more information. This type of conformity occurs when a person is unsure of a situation or lacks knowledge and is associated with internalisation. However, people looking for information on how or what to do to be ‘right’ will look to their own trusted sources, both online and offline, in order to gather information, especially when unsure. Social proof online then complicates this process, because what is seen to be right might not objectively be correct.

What gives rise to more independent behaviour where people are not amenable to social influence?

Independent behaviour is a term that’s used by psychologists to describe behaviour that seems not to be influenced by other people. This happens when a person resists pressure to buy-in through social norms. 

If one’s level of buy-in is only at the level of compliance, it’s more likely that just one other ‘dissident’ leads to a reduction in compliance behaviour. It’s thought that this is experienced as social support, making people feel more confident in their own privately held opinion, and more confident in rejecting the majority position. Think of this as explaining why behaviour can change rapidly once we start to see others behaving in ways that bolster our own opinion, and when we are only performing safety behaviours because everyone else seems to be doing the same. When people around us stop using the Covid-19 Tracer app to check in, it’s easy for this cessation behaviour to spread rapidly, if one’s motivation to use the app is only at the compliance level of buy-in.

Effective minority influence: The Elimination Strategy is a story of social change

This is a powerful change agent under certain conditions, and possibly why compliance with New Zealand’s elimination strategy and public health measures has been successful so far. 

Minority influence occurs when a small group (minority) influences the opinion of a much larger group (majority). This can happen when the minority behaves in the following ways.

Being consistent and unchanging in a view is more likely to influence the majority than if a minority is inconsistent and chops and changes their mind. There are two different types of consistency to note: (a) diachronic consistency – i.e. consistency over time – the majority sticks to its guns, doesn’t modify its views, and (b) synchronic consistency – i.e. consistency between its members – all members agree and back each other up.

This consistency seems to be important because when confronted with a consistent opposition, members of the majority will sit up, take notice, and rethink their position. A consistent minority also disrupts established norms and creates uncertainty, doubt and conflict. This can lead to the majority taking the minority view seriously. The majority will therefore be more likely to question their own views.

Commitment is another important characteristic that can extend minority influence. When the majority is confronted with someone with self-confidence and dedication to take a popular stand and refuses to back down, they may assume that he or she has a point, regardless of any objective evidence.

However, though consistency is important, flexibility also seems to be a key factor in how minorities influence majorities. Some researchers argue that the key is how the majority interprets consistency. If the consistent minority are seen as inflexible, rigid, uncompromising and dogmatic, they will be unlikely to change the views of the majority. However, if they appear flexible and compromising, they are likely to be seen as less extreme, as more moderate, cooperative and reasonable. As a result, they will have a better chance of changing majority views.

Implications for an evolved messaging campaign

The public health messaging campaign in New Zealand successfully transitioned from a minority-held elimination strategy view to convince the majority their point of view through a process of social change. 

However, public messaging is now being called into question in a few different ways. This ranges from from microscopic examination of consistency between communications received by individuals trying to establish presence of Covid-19, and advice issued how how to manage any particular case, to strategic concerns about the framing of the New Zealand’s strategy for how we exit this phase of the pandemic when community-wide vaccinations are some time away.

TLDR; Here’s my recommendations:

In line with a developing narrative of foregrounding potential benefits that are unlocked through vaccine uptake and public health measure adherence in the future, possible messaging includes concepts such as “unlocking borders” as a counterpoint to lockdowns, as well as “Unlocking our future”, for communities, not just individuals. People can protect others who may not be able to take a vaccine through their own uptake. This can also have benefits for the whole community for years to come. This more community-based focus can mirror some of the learning from smoking cessation campaigns, where the people who accrue benefits are not just the smokers themselves, but their wider family and community.

Principles of successful minority influence campaign to carry forwards: 

Continue to practice consistency, commitment and flexibility in delivery to demonstrate moderation, cooperation and reasonableness (so long as it does not compromise public health objectives)

In terms of level of buy-in, internalisation is not required: continue encouraging people to adopt a social role that plays to a level of identification with the ‘team of 5 million’ or some iteration of this that may be developed for an ‘unlocking New Zealand’ focused messaging campaign.

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