This article was written by Warren Cornwall for Science Magazine. The complete article is available online with the introductory paragraph followed by excerpts on Professor Lily Tsai’s work below. 

Crushing coronavirus means ‘breaking the habits of a lifetime.’ Behavior scientists have some tips

With no vaccine or medication to cope with the novel coronavirus, people around the world have sought—or been ordered to seek—protection by changing the way they act in ways large and small, from their washing hands more frequently to avoiding almost all physical contact. Now, government and industry leaders are turning to behavioral scientists for advice on how to persuade their citizens and workers to abide by such dramatic changes


Whether people respond to public health messages depends partly on who delivers it. That was underscored in Liberia during the deadly Ebola outbreak of 2014 and 2015, which killed nearly 5000 people in the West African nation. There, efforts by government workers to get people to follow precautions such as social distancing were stymied by suspicions that the disease was a government ploy to win more aid money. But neighborhood volunteers recruited and trained by government officials experienced much more success, says Lily Tsai, a political behavioral scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studied the Ebola response there. She concluded that residents found neighbors more credible partly because their connections to the community made them more accountable…

Tsai, whose behavioral research focuses on people in the developing world, says that in poorer nations, persuading people to obey a lockdown could come down to something as simple as ensuring access to drinking water. She’s launching an ambitious project in the West African country of Sierra Leone that uses detailed behavioral data to figure out what tools can best promote social distancing and limited movement there. She’s working with the country’s public health ministry, for example, to combine cellphone movement data with surveys of almost 3000 people across this country of 6.6 million. The goal is to gauge what messages are most effective, and what incentives would encourage residents to stay home—whether it’s information, money, water, food, or a combination.

Eventually, Tsai plans to create a dynamic map, down to the neighborhood level, showing potential hotspots where cooperation could be difficult, and what kinds of actions are likely to help ease acceptance of physical distancing and other measures. She is also hoping to expand the project to some of the continent’s largest cities, Lagos, Nigeria, and Nairobi, Kenya, to help prepare them for when the virus gains a foothold there. When the disease arrives in these sprawling cities, she fears, “it’s going to be awful.”

Complete text online: 10.1126/science.abc2922.