Focusing public health messages on the potential impact of colds and influenza on other people would be more effective at boosting prevention than present techniques, suggest researchers.
Changing such messaging to focus on the impact of actions, such as the potentially harmful impact of infecting a colleague with a cold, could have significant implications for policy on promoting vaccination and public behaviour in general, they said.
“Uncertainty about how our choices will affect others is prevalent in all our lives”
Previous research has indicated that uncertainty about how people’s choices will affect others leads to solely selfish decisions and actions.
However, the new study has found for the first time that uncertain situations do not always lead to selfish behaviour. It found that appealing to people to think about the impact of such potentially harmful actions can lead to decisions that err on the side of caution.
When it comes to social decisions, the uncertainty people face can be split into two types, said the researchers. These are known as outcome uncertainty – uncertainty about the outcomes of decisions – and impact uncertainty – how an outcome will impact on another person.
The researchers found that by focusing on messaging that appeals to impact uncertainty, and not outcome uncertainty, participants reported they would be more willing to adopt behaviour that would help contain the threat of infectious disease.
They said their discovery could enable public health officials and policy makers to “nudge” people towards less selfish decisions when faced with issues like flu vaccination.
To explore how people responded to impact and outcome uncertainty, the researchers carried out a series of experiments that involved varying information participants were given on their decisions.
The results suggested that outcome uncertainty enabled people to tell themselves that it was very unlikely their actions would harm another person and avoid feeling selfish.
“We found that when we are faced with uncertainty it does not always lead to selfish behaviour”
Such “self-focused narratives” could lead to selfish behaviour by downplaying the potential social costs of self-interested actions, said the study authors from City University of London, the University of Oxford and Yale University in the US.
However, in contrast, the findings suggested impact uncertainty activated feelings that led participants to adopt behaviours that preserved other peoples’ welfare.
Notably, the researchers said such feelings may spark self-image concerns such as someone thinking that “only a horrible person would risk infecting a vulnerable other”.
“Our findings offer insights into communicating uncertainty, especially in contexts where prosocial behaviour is paramount, such as responding to infectious disease threats,” they stated in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
Lead study author Dr Andreas Kappes, a researcher at City, University of London, said: “Uncertainty about how our choices will affect others is prevalent in all our lives, and we frequently are faced with such decisions.
“In our new study, we found that when we are faced with uncertainty it does not always lead to selfish behaviour, as instead, the type of uncertainty matters,” said Dr Kappes.
“Our findings suggest that when people consider the impact of their actions in such uncertain situations, such as harm they may cause by passing on a cold or flu, it can lead them to err on the side of caution,” he said.
“As a result, our findings offer new insights into communicating uncertainty to the public, especially in contexts in which behaviour that preserves others’ welfare is paramount, such as infectious disease,” he added.