Development economics Research

What if … we all worked together?

In other words, “why science does not have all the answers… and why it needs to work with the social scienes for maximum impact”.

This post starts from the saying that a scientist can tell you how to clone a human being, but a social scientist can tell you why this might not be a good idea… or then how to regulate the technology and maximise social benefit if you’re determined to go ahead.

Similarly, I was watching BBC’s “Pandemic” on BBC4 with Dr Hannah Fry, which aired last week. This asked how vulnerable we might be to a viral infection that had decided to turn into a global pandemic. They took a group of mathematicians and modelled the infection rates of the virus across a small town in the south of England. The results were, frankly, worrying. A pandemic is coming. The questions relate to how prepared we are.

The approaches were entirely scientific, and consisted of mathematicians and virologists wondering how social interactions could spread a virus. It did occur to me that if they had included a social scientist on the panel, someone could have pointed out that scale, depth and nature of social interactions have actually been the subject of social science research for decades.

The team used smart phone GPS tracking to analyse social interactions and deduce the likelihood of infection from these.

The results of the Pandemic experiment revealed the existence of some so-called super-spreaders of infection. These were generally high-profile individuals in the community – people who ran local businesses or who spent time in cafes or busy hubs of social interaction. This led to the suggestion that vaccinations could be targeted at super-spreaders for maximum impact. This was certainly an impressive result of the experiment and hugely important if we are to respond effectively to a super-virulent strain of flu, for example (the experiment assumed possible infection from 20 metres away).

But, instead of focusing solely on science, what could the results achieve if we combined insights from the social sciences to change behaviour as well as immunity?

As we know, you can present people with all the facts in the world, and they will fail to change their behaviour accordingly. Vaccinations, the climate emergency, and so many other examples show that presenting people with “the cold, hard facts” will change nothing. There’s an side point to be mentioned here about the devaluing of information through the spread of “fake news”, but since the 1970s psychologists have demonstrated that “reasonable-seeming people can be completely irrational”. For a review of the main studies in this area and why reason and confirmation bias could actually be helpful from a social perspective, see this post in The New Yorker. Applying this to cognitive bias that can be dangerous for the belief-holder, the Gormans have analysed how we can tackle these mistaken thoughts.

On the other hand, research has shown that “nudges” and insights from social science can have as much, if not more impact than financial incentives. The Behavioural Insights Team, founded on Sunstein and Thaler’s “Nudge”, published in 2008, looks at opportunities to shift the context in which people make decisions, hopefully pushing them towards “the correct” choice. In the case of improving our diets, or reducing knife crime, this is obviously a good thing. But what does this mean for epidemiology, virology, and pandemic response?

What could we achieve if we combined the insights of the natural and social sciences? The BBC Pandemic experiment into how viruses infect a community are insightful. But only when they are combined with the insights of the social sciences to actually translate this into real human behavioural changes that could change lives.

For example, if we want people to wash their hands for 20 seconds using soap, telling them about how they are reducing abstract infection rates will have little impact. “Nudges” on the other hand, like installing timers next to taps, singing happy birthday twice, or better still stopping water-saving taps that cut off water after 3 seconds, will have far greater impact. Other nudges that could encourage people to wash their hands are reminders that “everyone else does”, and countdowns near taps that tick red until 20 seconds are up – potentially showing on a smart screen how many bacteria are left on the subjects’ hands… these are just suggestions. But imagine what we could achieve if we combined science and social science insights. We would be unstoppable!