Stop ‘Project Fear’, over 50 of country’s leading psychologists warn government

2020-09-18 12:54:00 +0100

More than 50 of the country’s leading psychologists have written to the government warning them that their current messaging on Covid could lead to increased rates of anxiety, stress, and depression. 

The letter, written in partnership with the think-tank Compassion in Politics, argues that government efforts to ensure public compliance with anti-Covid measures through fear-based messages could badly backfire. In particular they criticise recent government messages which have suggested that the behaviour of young people risks the death of their grandparents and that Christmas’s might have to be cancelled if infection rates continue to rise 

The signatories argue that this approach could have a devastating effect on a population suffering from the mental strain caused by the pandemic. There is also evidence that fear-focused messages aren’t the most effective way to produce the required behaviour change 

The letter further warns that the attempt to label “young people” as the cause of a recent spike in Covid infection rates could actually have the opposite effect to the one intended. They argue that blaming and shaming certain groups in this way could have a demoralising effect, causing them to disengage entirely from efforts to stem the spread of Covid.

Signatories to the letter urge the government to reframe their Covid messaging to be far more sensitive and understanding of the public’s emotional state while conducting much more research into the kind of targeted messages that might be needed to convince certain groups to engage with anti-Covid behaviours.  

Frances Maratos, Associate Professor and Reader in Emotion Science at the University of Derby, and one of the authors of the letter, said: 

“We know from studies of the aftermath of previous epidemics that fear messaging isn’t an optimal solution for behaviour change, especially when considering its long-term effects. For example, Ebola risk-elevating messages increased public anxiety, with messages delivered via media exacerbating stress and worry. The ramifications of this include, for some, poor mental health that can persist long-after fear-based messaging campaigns have ceased.” 

Professor Manuela Barreto, Head of Psychology at the University of Exeter, said: 

“The focus on young people is an unfortunate distraction from the bigger issues underlying the current situation, and one that is unproductive and will only make matters worse. Research shows that fear actually reduces empathy and pro-sociality, especially towards more vulnerable groups in society.”

Jennifer Nadel, Co-Director of Compassion in Politics, said:

“Dealing with a global pandemic requires care, concern, and compassion - it can’t just be beaten into submission by strong words and harsh rhetoric. The government must remember the burden the public has already had to shoulder, the amount of change they’ve accepted and the sacrifices they’ve made. It will require our collective strength to finally see off Covid - dividing us will only make us weaker. Rather than blaming, shaming, and debasing the public’s attitude towards Covid, the government must focus its energy on building a robust testing regime, on safeguarding the NHS, and providing financial security to those households most at risk from the oncoming recession."

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