Center for Advanced Hindsight – Durham - Homegrown Tools

Center for Advanced Hindsight – Durham, NC

Updated: 2021

The Center for Advanced Hindsight (CAH) at Duke University partnered with the NC State College of Design, Cabarrus County, Catawba County, Gaston County, Haywood County, and Union County to use insights from behavioral science and design to improve community response to COVID-19.

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Case Study Time Frame 2020
Data Source: US Census, American Community Survey
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The Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University seeks to use behavioral science to make people happier, healthier, and wealthier through research and human-centered design. With this project, CAH sought to provide behavioral science tools to county governments that would lead to long term behavior change, allowing for safe re-opening and realization of economic opportunities that have been delayed due to COVID-19. Recognizing that a majority of the federal relief funding was targeted to cities, CAH designed the project for counties to test solutions, promote collaboration, and learn from each other.


Why a Behavioral-Focused Strategy is Needed

By working with the CAH researchers, county staff were able to see their work through a new lens, and draw on behavioral science principles to improve their communication with residents. CAH researchers noted that much of county staffs’ work is intuitively based on these ideas, but highlighting and naming this approach can open up more resources and make communication with residents more accessible, salient, and consistent. Behavioral science emphasizes that humans are not rational, but rather guided by specific motivations and barriers; understanding what those are greatly increases the effectiveness of messaging. Counties don’t have the bandwidth to do this research, so seeking out behavioral science and human-centered design resources can amplify county staff capacity. See Appendix 2 of this case study for CAH’s COVID Communications Guide shared with participating counties, and Appendix 3 for effective mask flyer designs with the behavioral science principles that underlie them.


What are the lessons learned from this story?

Adjusting individual behaviors is critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19. Once government restrictions are lifted, it falls to individual choices around mask wearing, distancing, and vaccination to slow the spread of the virus. Effective messaging and responsive policy making is key to sustaining individual compliance with these strategies.


It’s important for leaders to understand the demographics of their community in order to target messaging to diverse motivations and barriers. Consideration of specific motivations and barriers to adoption of suggested public health measures allows for more effective messaging. To be effective, a campaign needs to appeal to multiple motivations to solve the problem at hand. When it comes to encouraging mask wearing for example, people who forget their mask, versus people who think that masks are ineffective, have very different reasons behind what looks like the same behavior. Messages addressing both cases need to be incorporated to reach the whole community. Similarly, mass gatherings happen for different reasons, within different communities. Understanding each case (or subsets of cases) allows for more effective engagement. This project identified faith communities as one distinct community and developed specific recommendations for faith-based gatherings.


As the pandemic progresses, messaging must shift to maintain public health. Initially CAH’s focus was on reopening, but as the pandemic sustained into the summer, they saw that the framing had to shift to saving lives. Similarly, there was a lot of initial focus in the research on how to encourage mask wearing and social distancing, but with the introduction of the vaccine, the project shifted its focus to understanding how to encourage widespread vaccination. Localities must still push the message of social distancing and mask wearing, alongside vaccine campaigns, but may need to rethink these campaigns in order to avoid messaging fatigue.