Conversation with Cass Sunstein – IDB - Can behavioural science defeat Covid-19? (on Vimeo)

Conversation with Cass Sunstein – IDB - Can behavioural science defeat Covid-19? (On Vimeo)

Harvard University Professor Cass Sunstein discussed with the President of the Inter-American Devolopment Bank, Luis Alberto Moreno, on the use of behavioural science to help people during coronavirus pandemic on May 6, 2020. 

Behavioural sciences are used to reduce the problems of pandemic. In his speech, Professor Sunstein highlighted the importance of the employment of cognitive sciences by Government especially during the pandemic, since they can help people to do their interest. He also explained that pandemic had a deep impact on both “nudge” and “sludge” (that is the «frictions by which private and public institutions make hard for people to get food, money, health care or opportunities»).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Sunstein describes the so-called E.A.S.T. framework (Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely) that should characterize nudges in general. For what concerns Covid-19, in the E (easy) and S (social) features become crucial. Such a framework was employed in the United States, but also in Europe. Social norms are important during pandemic and they have changed quickly and have been helpful to save lives. Indeed, people have been more likely to accept “new social norms” such as wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance once they realized that this could save their own lives and their neighbors’. This can be considered a powerful nudge, since people can line up their behaviours to social norms.
Sunstein also “created” a new F.E.A.S.T. framework that is identical to the E.A.S.T. and to which the F (which is for Fun) is added and that could help Latin and North America. Although Sunstein recognizes that a pandemic is not fun, he underlines how a day can still be “fun”. This was especially done in New Zealand, where Government made people feel more positive and hopeful, by appealing to national and community pride (one example mentioned by Sunstein concerned the fact that in New Zealand the Easter bunny was declared an “essential worker”). 

Sunstein also underlined how the pandemic contributed to reduce “sludge”, since waiting and burdens were eliminated or cut. In fact, people could have access to help without filling the papers, have food in a way without previous interviews, or have access to healthcare in a simpler way. 

Later, Moreno questioned Sunstein about several issues concerning the Covid-19 pandemic. They discussed the Swedish approach to the pandemic that instead of the locking people down, used “clarity” in order to inform citizens on what they should do and not to do (e.g. telling people with health problems or over 65 that they should stay home). Although Sunstein did not expressly make a judgement on Sweden’s decision about lockdown, he said that targeting could be a good idea. Another issue discussed was the possibility that communication campaigns could be based on fear. According to Sunstein, however, this may prove ineffective, since it could make people angry and not make them understand fully the reasons why they should stay home. He also emphasized the role of entertainers in cheering up people.
Sunstein in his speech also underlined the importance of hope and optimisms in pandemic times. He stated that pandemic contributed to change our “unrealistic optimism” that things are always going to be fine. However, it is necessary to be optimistic because “when you are a pessimist and the bad thing happens, you live it twice: once when you worry about it, and the second time when it happens.”

(Maria Bianca Armiento)