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Conservation Research Institute


Psychology could help prevent future outbreaks of coronavirus and also save wildlife

By Douglas MacFarlane

Evidence again links a coronavirus outbreak to a wildlife markets, and since this trade is driven by superstitious consumer perceptions, psychology may be our best defence.

Scientists have linked the latest coronavirus outbreak to sale of wildlife, probably at market in Wuhan, China. Meaning, at least for the second time in two decades, the wildlife trade has emerged as the source of a global epidemic. Last time was in 2002, when the SARS virus emerged after jumping from bats to palm civets, killing nearly 800 people and affecting thousands more globally. As before, experts have warned that such markets are the perfect incubators for novel pathogens.

So why is history repeating itself?

Well, although Chinese officials have now banned the wildlife trade in several provinces (a move welcomed by wildlife experts), such action is unlikely to be permanent. Ultimately—unless more consumers curb their desire for wildlife products—the global pressure will eventually dissipate, and the trade will continue to threaten both human health and wildlife populations alike. The ultimate goal, therefore, is to change consumer behaviour—and thus psychology may be our best defence.

Research suggests that a potent driver of the demand for wildlife is the superstitious belief that wild meat has several therapeutic benefits. By leveraging psychological insights about countering such beliefs, those at the front line of countering human superstitions (e.g., journalists, scientists, doctors, and health authorities etc.) can help to curb the demand for wildlife products. The problem is, however, that many such authorities don’t always know which psychological insights to apply, or how?

A new review by a team of researchers from the University of Western Australia, has synthesised decades of psychological research on what makes people susceptible to false health beliefs and, importantly, suggests the best ways to overcome key psychological barriers to making better-informed behaviour choices. To make the findings accessible, the researchers developed a simplified one-page taxonomy to guide practitioners to identify the insights that may be relevant for tackling a particular false health belief.

This taxonomy is called VANMaN, because it outlines five major psychological drivers: Visceral influence—strong emotional cues like desire, sensation seeking, or pain avoidance that can impair people’s ability to detect fraud; Affect—how decisions are made using simple associations or feelings of good vs. bad; Nescience—the absence of knowledge that enables people to believe in unrelated causal associations; Misinformation—which can make it difficult to know which advice to trust; and Norms—rules or social expectations that often govern how members of a community should behave.

The taxonomy aims to guide practitioners who aim to counter false claims about health products that are ineffective, untested, and/or harmful. The approach is relatively simple—first identify the specific consumer motivations, then consult the taxonomy and apply the relevant psychological insights to inform debunking communications or design interventions. Finally, pilot test the intervention on a sample of target consumers and learn, adapt, and repeat.

But how effective is the approach? Well, despite many advances in testing novel ways to combat fraudulent claims, much of this work has yet to be applied to health fraud in a systematic way.

As a proof of concept, the team behind VANMaN has conducted multiple experiments with consumers, and their preliminary results are impressive. In their first paper, they designed and tested a short intervention message—targeting the illusion of causality—and found that it reduced willingness to pay for an ineffective health remedy (a multivitamin—no, they don’t work) by 23%. In a follow-up study (under peer review), they combined their initial approach with another intervention—targeting affective reasoning—and found it reduced consumer demand by a total of 50%. What’s more, these were just two of some 40 insights they’ve proposed.

And these results are just the beginning. Other researchers are already building on the VANMaN approach, adding details about individual cognitive traits and the persuasive appeal of common logical fallacies. Still others are also showing how the framework can address emerging conspiracies, such as regarding the origins of tick-borne Lyme disease. The VANMaN team hopes the work will inspire real solutions, beyond just health fraud, towards countering the growing problem of health-related misinformation, online conspiracy theories, and the political polarisation of sensitive health issues.

Which brings us back to the current coronavirus outbreak. Whilst misinformation helped create the conditions (i.e., the demand for wildlife) that enabled the coronavirus to emerge; now it may be impairing efforts to contain the outbreak. Dangerous falsehoods are spreading via social media, for example that the virus can infect food or individuals can protect themselves from the virus by eating garlic, using sesame oil, or drinking bleach. Whilst health authorities are vigilantly debunking such rumours, more could be done so that consumers are receptive to the facts and not the falsehoods.

For example, VANMaN advises giving consumers simple rules and explanations over complex advice. One such rule is—don’t buy health remedies from the person who diagnosed you—because the seller has a conflict of interest: a financial incentive to invent a diagnosis, overstate the benefits of their remedy, and underreport the harms of that remedy.

Ultimately, applying psychology to counter misconceptions about the benefits of consuming endangered animals may be the best offence against future coronavirus outbreaks. It would also deliver a crushing blow to the illegal wildlife trade, which critically threatens many of the world’s most endangered species.