July 16, 2020

Communicating with Young Adults about COVID-19 Guidelines

Georgia Barnett
Forensic Psychologist
Insights Group, HMPPS

I work for the Evidence-Based Practice Team, which is part of the HMPPS Insights Group. We are a headquarters team that aims to integrate the best evidence on relevant issues into our practice across prisons, probation and youth custody.

A colleague alerted us to research from the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team. This indicated that young adults (particularly young adult men) between the ages of 18-25 were those least likely to properly engage with or to intend to follow the Government’s advice on protecting themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19. Given that we have a large number of men in this age group in our prisons, on licence or serving sentences in the community, we wanted to produce some advice for staff based on what research tells us about how we can maximise compliance among people in this age group. We wanted to help young adults in our care protect themselves and others.

What does the research tell us about how people respond to advice about protecting themselves and others against COVID-19?

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) have been running trials to establish the effectiveness of communications about the Government’s advice on how to limit the spread of COVID-19. An analysis combining the results of these trials found that:

  • Young people (18-24 years old), particularly young men, were the worst at recalling the advice.
  • 18-24year olds, particularly young men, were the least likely to say that they intended to follow the advice on hand washing, self-isolation and social distancing.

Initially they thought this might be related to a lack of worry about the Coronavirus among younger people, but further analysis suggested that this group were similarly anxious about COVID-19 and its impact. Instead, BIT suggested that the format of the guidance (which was all long-form), may have been less engaging for this group, and that it could be a result, at least in part, of over-confidence (an assumption that they knew and understood and advice and didn’t need to read it fully).

Why do people find it hard to follow health advice, and why is this exaggerated in younger adults?

There are a number of reasons that people fail to follow advice that could improve or maintain their health. Some of these are linked to biases in our thinking, such as:

Present bias – which means we tend to focus on the here and now, and prioritise this over the longer-term. For example, the immediate discomfort of exercising now often takes priority over the longer-term benefits of getting fitter and healthier. The inconvenience and effort of hand washing, the pain of not being close to or interacting with peers might have more of a bearing on a young person’s decision than the longer-term impact of failing to observe these guidelines.

Attributional bias – we tend to overestimate the chances of something good happening to us, and underestimate the chances that something bad will happen to us, which could undermine people’s motivation to stick to the Government guidelines.

The Romeo and Juliet effect – we tend to react against being told what to do, and this tendency is stronger among younger people. Our freedom to act as we choose is really important to us.

These biases are common to us all. However, we would expect people up to the age of around 25, who are still maturing psychologically and socially, to face an extra set of challenges that can help to explain why younger people are those least likely to follow the Government advice.

  • Young adults are less likely to engage with their futures and their future selves, than are older adults, and this is even more pronounced among young adults convicted of crime. Young adults are even more predisposed to making decisions based on the “here and now” than older adults.
  • Younger adults are still developing in their ability to consider the wider context in which their decisions are made, and to take into account other people’s perspectives.
  • Younger adults are still developing in their ability to resist their impulses and tend to take more risks than older adults.

So, drawing on the work of the Behavioural Insights Team and research into psychosocial maturity, we created a one-page guide and an accompanying video, to explain what we can do to make it most likely that young adults in our care will follow the advice on COVID-19, and protect themselves and others. It’s a simple message. I think we just need to do all we can to get it across.

Thanks to Sam Denman in the HMPPS Effective Practice & Service Improvement Group (EPSIG) for helping us put this video together.

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