This article was written by Andrew Luttrell for Psychology Today. The complete article is available online with excerpts below. 

How Building Trust Can Save Lives

A health campaign to address Ebola worked by building trust and accountability.

“Just a few years ago, Ebola was tearing through communities in West Africa. A massive health campaign to warn people of the dangers of this disease and provide tools for slowing its spread was imperative. But in Liberia, decades of corruption and abuse left people wary of their government, suspicious of its intentions and unwilling to trust anything it said.

Research from MIT’s GOV/LAB sheds light on how the government of Liberia was still able to mount an effective public health campaign to protect the health of its people. The secret to its success was a focus on building trust and accountability.

Trust in Persuasion

Social psychologists have long recognized the role of trust in persuasion. The same message seems more persuasive when it comes from someone we feel we can trust than when it comes from someone we don’t trust.


Letting Locals Guide the Way

To combat the Ebola epidemic, the Liberian government’s first move was to send its own staff to knock on doors and deliver public awareness messages. This turned out to be a catastrophic failure—the government workers were met with disbelief and even violence. Trust in the government was so abysmal that rumors started spreading that the government was just dispatching people to infest community wells with poison. They thought the government had invented the Ebola crisis just as a way to rake in aid money.

So the government tried to correct course by recruiting local intermediaries who could talk to members of their own community about Ebola and how to protect themselves. One benefit of using locals to spread the message is that they’re familiar members of the community.


Building Trust to Save Lives

In a time and place where people were understandably suspicious of their government, a massive communication campaign was still able to make a dent in an urgent health crisis by building trust through community members who communicated honest intentions and held themselves accountable for protecting their neighbors’ health.

As we continue to navigate national and global crises, it’s worth keeping this lesson in mind to understand when people are likely to show openness to the messages that will keep them safe.”

Read the complete article online