Objective Accurate measurement of compliance with COVID-19 guidance is important for public health policy and communications. Responses to surveys, however, are susceptible to psychological biases, including framing effects and social desirability. Our aim was to measure the effects of these biases on estimates of compliance with public health guidance (eg, hand-washing, social distancing).
Design We conducted two online experiments (n=1800) and varied whether questions were framed positively or negatively (eg, ‘I always wash my hands…’ vs ‘I don’t always wash my hands…’). We also varied the degree to which anonymity was assured, via a ‘list’ experiment.
Results Reported compliance, despite being generally high, was reduced by negatively framing questions and increasing anonymity using a list experiment technique. Effect sizes were large: compliance estimates diminished by up to 17% points and 10% points, respectively.
Conclusion Estimates of compliance with COVID-19 guidance vary substantially with how the question is asked. Standard tracking surveys tend to pose questions in ways that lead to higher estimates than alternative approaches. Experimental tests of these surveys offer public health officials greater insight into the range of likely compliance estimates to better inform policy and communications.
- Health behaviour
- Public health
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Contributors ST developed the study concept, designed the materials in collaboration with FMG, performed the data analysis and interepretation, and drafted the manuscript. MB assisted with material design and reviewing relevant literature. CB programmed the experiment. CB, FMG and PL provided critical revisions. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript for submission.
Funding Both experiments were funded through a research programme commissioned by Ireland’s Department of Health, in support of the Behavioural Change Subgroup of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).
Competing interests None declared.
Patient consent for publication Not required.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
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