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  • 31st Mar 2020

Young men are hardest to engage on coronavirus guidance

Analysis of 11 trials with 20,000 UK adults

As the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, continues to spread around the world, so too does advisory content and media regarding its dangers. With over 700,000 confirmed cases and 35,000 deaths recorded across 177 countries and regions, governments, public health organisations, and research groups worldwide have been publishing posters, digital media, infographics, and online guidance across traditional and new media to communicate the risks of the illness to individuals and to give advice on how best to protect oneself and others.

Over the last few weeks, BIT has run online trials to help test and improve the content of communications like these in order to improve the public’s recall of key public health guidelines (such as hand-washing and social distancing) and ultimately slow the spread of the disease. For example, in a trial we blogged about recently, we tested how many hand-washing steps people could remember after seeing a ‘how to wash your hands’ infographic. 

Having run several trials involving over 20,000 UK adults, we now have the ability to look for consistent patterns across those trials (in a ‘meta-analysis’). One key question is whether some groups, such as young men, are less likely to remember or say they will enact official guidance. This could have a huge impact on the rate of infection and ultimately cost lives over the coming weeks and months. 


To analyse comprehension consistently across these trials, we created a standardised ‘recall score’. Much like an exam score, it measures the proportion of answers a respondent got correct in a given trial. 

The graph below shows how those recall scores were distributed for the 3 types of guidance we’ve tested. In these trials, people did quite well on questions testing their comprehension and recall of social distancing guidance, but less well in tests of self-isolation and hand-washing guidance.

After creating that standardised recall score, we then combined the trials together into one large dataset.


Here are our 4 key findings from the pooled dataset.

1. Younger people, especially men, were particularly bad at recalling coronavirus guidance across trials

A large part of the difference shown here is accounted for by younger people spending much less time reading the materials we show them. In fact, almost one-third of respondents aged 18-24 spend less than 7 seconds reading the materials in our trials. 

What could possibly explain this trend? It could be that because most of the guidance materials we’ve tested have been posters or long-form guidance – which may be less effective at breaking through to a cohort used to consuming content in shorter, more engaging formats such as tweets, videos and GIFs. Or it could simply be that younger people are less engaged with the coronavirus issue, and therefore less interested in what they’re being shown.

2. We see similar gender and age differences in stated intent to enact coronavirus guidance 

Intentions to act on the guidance are weaker among those who struggle to recall its details: younger people, especially men, are the least likely to say they’ll follow the recommended practices about hand-washing, social distancing and self-isolation.

What might account for this? One explanation could be that these groups tend to be less worried about coronavirus and its effects, resulting in apathy towards guidance. However, additional analysis on our worry measures doesn’t support this theory. Another explanation is overconfidence – it’s possible these groups believe they understand the guidelines before reading them. 

Whatever the reason, these findings suggest a possible need for special strategies to increase compliance with coronavirus guidance among younger men.

3. Middle-aged and older people have become increasingly worried about coronavirus as UK cases have grown more rapidly 

In each trial, we have asked people how worried they are about coronavirus (and to say how likely they think it is that they personally will get it this year, shown below). In the past few weeks, concern about coronavirus has increased dramatically among those aged 25 and over. In contrast, those under 25 have remained at about the same level of worry in all of our trials. 

While public anxiety is important in its own right, further analysis suggests it may also have an impact on people’s engagement with official guidance. The next chart shows that those who are the least and the most worried about coronavirus tend to remember fewer details of the guidance they see, even when taking their gender, age, income, education, region of residence and the trial they participated in into account.

The surprising finding here is that higher levels of worry seem to result in lower recall of official guidance. While we don’t know exactly what drives this pattern yet, it could reflect more worried groups being less receptive to official guidance because they have stronger pre-existing views on how to protect themselves, or because they don’t think the guidance is relevant enough to address their concerns.

Many people are getting more worried about coronavirus over time, and our analysis suggests a negative side-effect may be that increased worry leads to lower compliance with official guidelines. These findings emphasise the importance of increasing awareness of coronavirus advice without causing panic.

4. Men and women both see a growing personal risk of getting coronavirus, but women are more worried about it

While the chart above highlights that both men and women believe they’re at an increasing risk of getting coronavirus, the next one shows this has translated into a greater increase in worry for women. This equanimity from men may be slightly misplaced, given recent evidence suggesting that men could actually be at higher risk from the virus

So what’s the main story emerging from our meta-analysis? Our primary takeaway is that young people, especially young men, seem to be less engaged with communications on coronavirus. And if current coronavirus communications aren’t working as well for young men, policymakers should be concerned: there were 7.4 million men aged 18-34 in the UK at the last count. That could be a large number of people failing to fully comply with advice on how to slow the spread of the virus. 

We’re now looking at evidence from our own trials, as well as more broadly, to investigate what strategies could work best to reach those groups. The positive news is that in the UK, many footballers have begun posting appeals to follow the government’s guidance about staying home. That approach, and ones like that used in this poster from Baltimore City, may help to to reach young men. Finding appropriate methods to target other disengaged groups remains key in ensuring that everyone does all they can to slow the spread of the virus and save lives.


Our thoughts on the COVID-19 crisis