On 20 March, the SAP Institute for Digital Government (SIDG) published “Dealing with disruption: A Digital Nudge could help” to explore how digital technologies might enable governments around the world to nudge citizens towards cooperation and coordinated action in containing COVID-19. Independently, on 29 March, researchers from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) of Trinity College, Dublin, published a rapid narrative review on “Using Behavioural Science to Help Fight the Coronavirus”. In this article, the SIDG will explore how digital technologies could help to more efficiently and effectively disseminate and personalise nudges to address the five issues identified by the ESRI researchers: hand washing, face touching, self-isolation, collective action, and crisis communication.

The ESRI researchers are a team of applied Behavioural Scientists who specialise in generating evidence for policy in Ireland and international organisations, while the SIDG is an SAP think-tank working with government, academic and commercial partners to accelerate technology innovation within the Public Sector. It’s therefore unsurprising that the ESRI researchers view solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic through the lens of Behavioural Science, while the SIDG view those same solutions through the lens of digital technology. But these are complimentary views, as detailed in our prior collaboration with the Australian National University, “The Digital Nudge in Social Security Administration”. Specifically, this research describes how information technology can be applied to Behavioural Science theory to improve social outcomes through nudging via digital channels (Gregor & Lee-Archer, 2016).

In summary, the ESRI team’s rapid narrative review of more than 100 papers yielded evidence that Behavioural Science interventions could be effective to increase hand washing, but not to reduce face touching. The review also suggested various Behavioural Science approaches to reduce the disincentive to self-isolate, to promote public-spirited behaviour, and to prompt coordinated action in response to crisis communications. In part, the researchers observe that the effectiveness of these interventions depends not only on the content of the nudge, but also on the speed with which the nudge can be disseminated, and the degree to which it can “grab attention” (Lunn et al, 2020). These are precisely the areas in which predictive analyticsexperience management and contextualisation capabilities can help to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of traditional nudges (van Leent & Ryan, 2020).

In this unprecedented time, and there is undoubtedly a need for urgent and decisive action to contain the spread of COVID-19, but we at the SIDG believe that such action should not override citizens’ basic rights to privacy. Additionally, Thaler and Sunstein’s (2008) definition of a Nudge: “Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour, in a predictable way, without forbidding any options, or significantly changing their economic consequences” is equally applicable today and in the case of Digital Nudges. Hence, as we explore the potential for digital technologies to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of traditional nudges, we will endorse implementation scenarios that incorporate transparency and consent, and respect individual rights to privacy and autonomy.

Hand washing

The ESRI team found strong evidence that Behavioural Science interventions can increase hand washing. Traditional methods focus on attracting attention, making compliance easy, and invoking feelings of disgust. The researchers therefore suggest placing hand sanitiser centrally in prominent public spaces with colourful signs to increase use (Lunn et al, 2020).

But hand sanitiser can’t be provided in every public space, so it might also be helpful to encourage people to carry their own. This is where digital technologies could be used to predict or detect when someone is likely to be travelling and remind them to pack a personal hand sanitiser. Consent would be required, for example to access a personal calendar, or to track location changes using a mobile device, and to receive SMS notifications from a trusted agent. Additional notifications could be sent to remind people to use their hand sanitiser at intervals, or when they’re scheduled to travel on to the next location.

Face touching

In contrast to hand washing, the ESRI team’s rapid narrative review failed to uncover any evidence that Behavioural Science interventions can reduce the frequency with which people touch their face. Adding to the challenge, the researchers observed that making people conscious of face touching actually increases the incidence of this particular habit. The ESRI team therefore submits ideas, generated using prominent Behavioural Science frameworks, for example to encourage scratching itches with the sleeve (Lunn et al, 2020), but it seems there are few easy solutions to this difficult problem.

Digital interventions will similarly struggle to influence such a personal habit as face touching. But perhaps, rather than trying to prevent or intercept the action in real-time, digital technologies could be used to gradually change the behaviour over time. For example, a webcam could be used to record the number of times a person touches their face while using a computer, tablet or mobile phone. At the end of each day, an app (similar to Apple’s Screen Time monitoring app) could report the tally and provide a comparison with previous days. Since this is an otherwise innocuous activity, there might even be the potential for gamification, in which social media groups compete to reduce face touching.


In their paper, the ESRI team explored the potential for Behavioural Science interventions to reduce the negative effects of isolation. They conclude that if these interventions can reduce negative consequences for individuals, they have the potential to increase voluntary compliance with government rules and regulations. In addition to traditional approaches, the researchers acknowledge the important roles that ICT and social media are already playing in activating social networks for people in self-isolation (Lunn et al, 2020).

Here we suggest that more advanced digital technologies can be applied to further improve conditions for people in isolation. AI and IoT technologies are already being used to support people who might not otherwise have active social networks, for example in a Digital Aged Care setting. Adding experience management capabilities (including digital surveys) could help us to understand the emotional drivers that influence non-compliance with self-isolation rules and regulations. Once these factors are understood, contextualisation capabilities (including personalised outreach) could be used to proactively engage with people on a more personal level, and to encourage and sustain voluntary compliance.

Collective action

The ESRI team cited Behavioural Science literature that suggests that most people are “conditional cooperators, who are willing to make sacrifices for the public good provided that others are too, but cease cooperation if too many other people don’t bother” (Lunn et al, 2020). Evidence is provided that three factors strongly influence people’s willingness to participate in collective action: communication, group identity and punishment. Importantly in our context, the ESRI team’s rapid narrative review failed to identify any scientific literature addressing the drivers of panic buying, or efforts to prevent it, using traditional nudges.

Although not a scientific paper, the SIDG article “Dealing with Disruption: A Digital Nudge could help” specifically addresses how Digital Nudges could be applied to reduce panic buying – illustrated with an example of stockpiling toilet paper. In some jurisdictions, supplies of essential goods are slowly returning to normal as a result of additional stocking and controlled purchasing arrangements. However, these measures have not so much changed this undesirable behaviour as suppressed it, so there’s a chance that panic buying could return as soon as the controls are removed. The SIDG therefore continues to promote the use of Digital Nudges in relation to this use case in particular.

Crisis communication

The ESRI team dedicates a large portion of their paper to Behavioural Science approaches to crisis communication. This is for good reason, given the importance of effective communication and the notable use of traditional nudges in this area, for example in response to the Flint water crisis. The researchers note that “making communication sensitive to the demographics of the intended recipient helps people to feel that society is more prepared” (Lunn et al, 2020). While social media has been hugely successful at delivering targeted campaigns, the researchers point out that “social media can also contribute to the spreading of inaccurate information, whether malign or merely misinformed” (Lunn et al, 2020).

Digital Nudges can assist with combating “fake news” by empowering governments to apply the CDC’s six principles of Crisis and Emergency Risk Communications:

  1. Be first: The ability to communicate information quickly depends not only on having efficient communication channels (instant messaging, email, telephone, etc), but also on knowing which channel to use, for who, where, when, and for what purpose. Advanced analytics tools can provide insights into individual preferences and circumstances, allowing officials to select the most effective channel to deliver any given message.
  2. Be right: Although there is currently no “best practice” for containing COVID-19, the Internet provides a rich medium for evidence-based communications. Infographics and interactive visualisations are already being used to assist citizens understand the rationale for public health recommendations and government policy.
  3. Be credible: Digital channels obviously have the potential to enable experts, such as from the World Health Organisation and the U.S. Centre for Disease Control, to reach large numbers of people – but only if they can grab public attention. Appealing to individual interests and preferences through contextualisation (including personalised messages) can help official communications be heard through the noise of big data.
  4. Express empathy: Empathy is a characteristically human trait, so one might think that digital technologies don’t have a role to play here. But advanced analytics and machine learning can help surface data-driven insights to enable government officials to better understand citizen motivations and thereby to engage with greater empathy.
  5. Promote action: In the main, containment of COVID-19 relies on everyone doing pretty much the same thing: #StayHome. But right now in the USA, people are being advised to prioritise taking shelter from tornados over maintaining social distancing. As previously discussed, digital technologies can assist to deliver targeted outreach and to elicit appropriate responses from individuals in particular circumstances.
  6. Show respect: The CDC observes that respectful communication is key to building rapport and encouraging cooperation. But respectful communication is not just about knowing how to address someone politely – rapport is built through active listening and two-way dialogue. Experience management capabilities (including embedded feedback loops) can help governments to listen, understand and act on citizen sentiment.

“We’re all in this together” is perhaps one of the most effective nudges utilised during the COVID-19 crisis. What’s becoming more and more clear is that we’re all in this for the long-haul. Behavioural Science approaches have already been successfully applied by governments and public health officials to nudge people to act in the collective interest. But additional measures and supports will be required to sustain this public-spirited behaviour in the months to come. Digital technologies, including predictive analytics, experience management and contextualisation, are part of the overall toolkit available to governments as they engage with the world’s conditional cooperators.