Recommendation: Emphasize negative incentives (a 'stick') to motivate people to engage in desired behavior.

While positive incentives (‘carrots’) activate our inherent desire to obtain something, human beings strongly prefer avoiding personal losses. When directing the audience to act in a certain way, your communications should highlight the potential negative consequences of ignoring the advice more so than the benefits of following it.

For example:

‘Police in [your local area] are issuing fines for people violating physical distancing orders’ is a stronger message than ‘If we all stay inside, cases of coronavirus will decrease and there will be an earlier end to the lockdown.’


Given the global scale of the coronavirus pandemic, it is vitally important that people follow best practice from public health officials to slow and reduce the spread of coronavirus. This means billions of people must make enormous adjustments to their lives, with little warning, in a time of great uncertainty and potentially in the midst of contrary misinformation.

How to convince people to follow your advice

Human decision making is affected by a multitude of factors; some conscious and others unconscious. Incentives are one such factor, and your communications should convey incentives for people to follow certain procedures or norms throughout this global pandemic.

Not all incentives are created equal. Although many studies have shown that people can be driven to desired behavior by positive incentives, negative incentives provoke a reaction triggered by automatic fear responses in the brain and are generally agreed to prove more powerful an impulse than the promise of a reward.

Why negative incentives motivate people

Negative incentives motivate people for a variety of factors:

  • People tend to consider losses as more significant than the corresponding gains. We have a natural tendency to avoid loss because we feel the pain of losing more than the elation of winning. Even if the threat of hospitalisation from coronavirus is relatively low, the high cost of the risk can become ‘outsized’ in our brains and serve as a powerful deterrent to breaking physical distancing protocols.
  • The bias of the present. It is easier to act on something if we will be affected by it now rather than for the future. Many coronavirus best practices, such as staying inside, offer few visible short term positive rewards. Your communications should highlight a threat of loss now instead of solely focusing on the (very real but more distant) benefits for individuals and society down the line.
  • Negative incentives can be more clear. Particularly in this time of great uncertainty, we crave clarity. Although there are many health-related questions that as yet cannot be answered definitively, some negative consequences can be asserted fairly definitively and powerfully to drive behavior - eg. ‘If we don’t stop the spread of coronavirus, people will continue to die’.

They interact well with other behavioral nudges. Negative incentives often overlap convincingly with other nudges - take the example of physical distancing.

Affect (activating emotion): Invoking disgust and fear at the idea of someone sneezing on you / you on them as a motivator to keep your distance
Ego (self-image): Portraying people who don’t physically distance as inconsiderate and undesirable incentivizes distancing
Social norms: Stating that everyone physically distancing is doing their part, so you don’t want to be the one who doesn’t.

Each nudge is impactful in its own right but the reiteration and overlap of various nudges helps to compound and reiterate your messaging.

The last word

It is important to recognize that we are all individuals - that what motivates one will not necessarily provide such concrete motivation for others and therefore to consider each communication piece’s audience and consider your wording accordingly.

It is also true that in other contexts positive incentives, especially ones that speak to people’s altruism, can be very effective in motivating action that conveys collective benefit. Similarly, the above advice should not be confused with positive framing (ie saying “save lives” or “keep your family safe” vs “don’t kill people” or “avoid harming your family”). Positive framing is often the most effective approach, even when conveying negative incentives (ie. “Stay home and keep yourself out of jail” vs “don’t go out, so you won’t get arrested”).

Emphasizing the potential negative ramifications of certain actions should be used when communicating the necessary action people must take to prevent the spread of coronavirus.


More about COVID-19 based nudges:

More about nudging and incentives in healthcare: