The novel coronavirus thrives on proximity. Therefore, most initiatives to combat the pandemic are geared to prevent person-to-person transmission. Social distancing is the call of the hour, and governments have shut down cities, nations, businesses, and events, sacrificing economic growth to save lives. To drive home the importance of social distancing, government spokespersons as well as celebrities have reached out to the people to maintain physical distancing at all times. Two main questions emerge from such campaigns: What is the extent of support for social distancing measures? Who is the better messenger for such campaigns: the government spokesperson or the celebrity?

To find answers to such crucial questions, a survey was conducted in March by researchers from EPFL and the University of Lausanne. A questionnaire was distributed to 705 adults in Switzerland. Participants were asked for their impressions on Switzerland’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and whether they supported social distancing measures. In a second part of the questionnaire, participants were asked to read a social distancing message from a public figure and then indicate how positively or negatively they felt about the message. Some questionnaires had a message from Hollywood actor Tom Hanks, while others included a message from Swiss president Simonetta Sommaruga.

Contrary to the predicted outcome that the celebrity would have a greater influence on people’s opinions and attitudes, the survey revealed that the government spokesperson was more effective, particularly in response to current compliance with social distancing measures. This effect was substantially stronger among older respondents despite their lower risk perception. The study also demonstrated that support and current practice of social distancing were inversely related with city and household size.

Although this was a limited survey, the results could help develop future strategies to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis as well as other challenging situations in the future. Toward that objective, the researchers are awaiting results from similar surveys deployed in many other countries to gather insights from across the world.

The research paper “Who is listening? Spokesperson Effect on Communicating Social and Physical Distancing Measures During the COVID-19 Pandemic” is authored by Andreas Spitz and Ahmad Abu-Akel (Institute of Psychology, University of Lausanne) and Robert West (School of Computer and Communication Sciences, EPFL).