Tackling COVID-19: Dr Sander van der Linden

Dr Sander van der Linden

“The psychology of pandemics was not on my research agenda, but I can tell you one thing: it is now,” says Dr Sander van der Linden. As an expert in psychological and behavioural science, his research has - until recently - been focused on societal risks like climate change and misinformation. Suddenly he has a lot to contribute to the pandemic response. 

I normally work in the Old Cavendish Laboratory, where I run the Cambridge Social Decision-Making lab. It’s a historic landmark where Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss the tour groups pausing below my window every morning. I work from my home in Cambridge now, around the corner from Midsummer Common. The cows are out this time of year, so we often exchange theories about the pandemic when I go for a walk. They seem mostly skeptical, uninterested, and refuse to wear masks, but we get along well otherwise.

In my view, the pandemic is as much a behavioural as a biological problem. We need a vaccine, but we also need people around the world to coordinate their behaviours to help slow the spread of the virus. The required behavioural changes range from the relatively mundane, such as frequent hand washing, to making costly personal sacrifices by self-isolating at home. This necessitates knowledge about human cooperation as well as economic and social inequalities. Models that attempt to forecast the benefits of widespread social distancing and self-isolation also depend on accurate estimates of human behaviour under various conditions. 

Behavioural science is also relevant in terms of how to communicate the science to the wider public, how to communicate uncertainty and risk, and how to protect people from the onslaught of fake news and misinformation about COVID-19. I am honoured to have been part of an effort to synthesize what behavioural science has to contribute to the pandemic, as part of a team of 40 international experts around the world. I hope that the article Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, will be useful to policy-makers. 

My research looks at how humans make judgments and decisions. This could be about information, risk, societal issues, or other people. In collaboration with our partners we developed Bad News, an award-winning interactive online game. It helps inoculate players against fake news and misinformation, including fake news about COVID-19. We rely on the biomedical analogy: just as administering a weakened dose of a virus triggers the production of antibodies to confer immunity against future infection, the same can be achieved with information. By actively exposing people to severely weakened doses of the tactics used to produce fake news, people gain psychological immunity (or mental ‘antibodies’) against misinformation. 

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Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


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