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BPS replies to article on psychologists' involvement in the Covid-19 response

01 April 2020

The society has responded to a recent article on Unherd, which criticised the response of psychologists to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Covid-19 outbreak has highlighted the need to use robust psychological evidence about what we know about human behaviour to develop policy to help fight this global pandemic. While Covid-19 is a disease, it spreads (or fails to spread) via human behaviour, which can change based on knowledge and motivations.

From the policies on social distancing, to shielding and isolation, psychologists have been informing government to support the best possible outcomes through the implementation of clear and effective new policies based on our understanding of what works in terms of changing human behaviour.

Understandably, this has led to greater public awareness and scrutiny of both political decisions and the evidence base that has informed these decisions.

The psychological evidence used to support policy development must stand up to scrutiny and be evaluated in conjunction with our environmental and social contexts which are constantly evolving, often at rapid pace.

As part of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Behaviour (SPI-B) which has provided input into Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE – which in turn advises government), some of our expert health and social psychologists have provided advice aimed at anticipating and helping people adhere to interventions that are recommended by medical or epidemiological experts.

This includes understanding that in the briefings, guidelines and advice from government, it is essential to recognise and respect the autonomy of individuals as decision makers and in managing their own personal risk.

Building public trust in the decisions that government is making and the evidence behind them is equally important. Psychology has a crucial role to play in both providing the evidence base to inform these policy decisions and to communicate and translate these decisions in sustainable and inclusive ways.

Transparency and clear communication is key to this and is evident from the SPI-B briefings that have been made publically available. Rather than not to be trusted, from rapid evidence reviews (such as those used by SPI-B) and ongoing original research, psychology is making an active and positive evidence-based contribution to the global fight against Covid-19.

Social Psychologist and BPS member Professor John Drury (Sussex University), who is a member of SPI-B, said:

“By drawing on the evidence base on the role of shared identity in driving behaviours such as adherence to social distancing, social psychologists in SPI-B have worked hard to ensure that the evidence is reflected in the messaging used by the government."

Health psychologist and Chartered BPS member Professor Susan Michie recently shared her thoughts as member of the UK government’s Covid-19 Behavioural Science Advisory Group on the challenges and opportunities that accompany translating the evidence base to inform policy and population behaviour.

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