A global experiment on motivating social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic
Finding communication strategies that effectively motivate social distancing continues to be a global public health priority during the COVID-19 pandemic. This cross-country, preregistered experiment (n = 25,718 from 89 countries) tested hypotheses concerning generalizable positive and negative outcomes of social distancing messages that promoted personal agency and reflective choices (i.e., an autonomy-supportive message) or were restrictive and shaming (i.e. a controlling message) compared to no message at all. Results partially supported experimental hypotheses in that the controlling message increased controlled motivation (a poorly-internalized form of motivation relying on shame, guilt, and fear of social consequences) relative to no message. On the other hand, the autonomy-supportive message reduced feelings of defiance relative to the controlling message. Unexpectedly, messages did not influence autonomous motivation (a highly-internalized form of motivation relying on one’s core values) or behavioral intentions. Results supported hypothesized associations between people’s existing autonomous and controlled motivations and self-reported behavioral intentions to engage in social distancing: Controlled motivation was associated with more defiance and less long-term behavioral intentions to engage in social distancing, whereas autonomous motivation was associated with less defiance and more short- and long-term intentions to social distance. Overall, this work highlights the potential harm of using shaming and pressuring language in public health communication, with implications for the current and future global health challenges.