Government and governance, Science and technology, Education, Health | Australia, Asia, East Asia, The World

27 February 2020

Driven by misconception, some people are consuming wild animals in an attempt to gain health benefits, and this may have spurred the coronavirus outbreak. A new framework shows promise for tackling the issue, Douglas MacFarlane writes.

Evidence is emerging linking the coronavirus outbreak to the illegal wildlife trade, probably via a market in Wuhan, China. Meaning, for at least the second time in two decades, the wildlife trade has been implicated as the source of a global epidemic.

The last time this happened was in 2002, when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (SARS) virus emerged after jumping from bats to palm civets – a small mammal native to tropical Asia and Africa – killing nearly 800 people and affecting thousands more globally. As with SARS, experts have warned that wildlife markets are the perfect incubators for novel pathogens.

So why is history repeating itself?

Although government officials have now comprehensively banned the wildlife trade in China – a move welcomed by wildlife experts – this is unlikely to be permanent. Ultimately, unless more consumers curb their desire for wildlife products, policy pressure will eventually dissipate, and demand for the trade will take over, allowing it to threaten both human health and wildlife populations.

The ultimate goal, therefore, must be to change human behaviour. This is where psychological tactics may be the best strategy going forward.

Research suggests that a potent driver of the demand for wildlife is the superstitious belief that wild meat has therapeutic benefits. By leveraging psychological insights to counter such beliefs, those at the front line – journalists, scientists, doctors, and health authorities – can help curb demand. The problem is that such authorities don’t always know which strategies to apply.

More on this: Podcast: Coronavirus and a state of unease

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 choices.

To make the findings accessible, the researchers developed a simplified one-page framework to guide practitioners in identifying relevant tactics for tackling false health beliefs.

The framework is called ‘VANMaN’, named after the five major psychological drivers it outlines.

The first is ‘Visceral influence’, or strong motivational cues. Emotions such as desire, sensation seeking, or pain avoidance can powerfully reduce our focus and impair our ability to detect fraud.

Second is ‘Affect’. Often, we make decisions using simple associations or feelings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ rather than with fact-based information. This is known as ‘affective reasoning’.

Third is ‘Nescience’. A simple lack of knowledge, or nescience, often enables us to believe that unrelated associations have a causal relationship. Such as, the myth that echinacea can help treat a cold.

Fourth is ‘Misinformation’. It is often difficult to know which advice to trust, and we are all vulnerable to information that, while present, is factually incorrect.

The final driver is ‘Norms’. Rules or social expectations often govern how members of a community behave. Often, we do what we believe is expected of us.

VANMaN was built to tackle these drivers, and guide practitioners who aim to counter false claims about health products that are ineffective, untested, and/or harmful. The approach is relatively simple.

More on this: What coronavirus could mean for Australia’s trade with China

First, the practitioner should identify the specific consumer motivations, then consult VANMaN and apply the relevant tactics to inform debunking communication or design interventions. Finally, they should pilot test the intervention on a sample of target consumers, and learn, adapt, and repeat.

So how effective is such an approach? Well, despite many advances in combating fraudulent claims in general, much of this work has yet to be applied to health fraud.

In their first paper, the VANMaN team designed and tested a short intervention message targeting illusions of causality.

They found that the message reduced willingness to pay for an ineffective health remedy, in this case a multivitamin – no, they aren’t effective – by 23 per cent.

To give an example, VANMaN advises giving consumers simple rules rather than complex advice. One such rule is ‘don’t buy health remedies from the person who diagnosed you’. This is because the seller has a conflict of interest. They have a financial incentive to invent a diagnosis, overstate the benefits of their remedy, and underreport the harms of that remedy, and should, therefore, not be trusted.

In a follow-up study, they combined their initial approach with another intervention targeting affective reasoning, and found it reduced consumer demand by a total of 50 per cent. What’s more, these were just a few of some 40 insights explained in the research.

These results are just the beginning. Other researchers are already building on the VANMaN framework, adding detail about individual cognitive biases and traits and fleshing out 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. It could also be geared towards countering the growing problem of online conspiracy theories, or the political polarisation of sensitive health issues.

This is where the current coronavirus outbreak comes in. Misinformation may have helped create the conditions – in this case the demand for wildlife meat – that enabled coronavirus to emerge, and now it may now be impairing efforts to contain the outbreak. Dangerous falsehoods are spreading on social media. For example, that the virus can infect food, or that individuals can protect themselves from the virus by eating garlic, using sesame oil, or – incredibly – drinking bleach.

There are now even reports that illegal wildlife products are being marketed online as cures to coronavirus. Such predictable developments clearly demonstrate that psychology is a key part of the solution.

Whilst health authorities are vigilantly debunking such rumours, more must be done so that consumers are receptive to the facts. VANMaN, and projects like it, can be part of this.

Such frameworks have many benefits. In the coronavirus case, applying psychological tactics, such as those in VANMaN, to counter beliefs about consuming endangered animals may be the best defence against future outbreaks. However, this is just one application of these findings. Frameworks like VANMaN have wide-reaching potential in a number of areas, and demand the attention of governments, health organisations, and the public alike.

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One Response

  1. Trevor Ungvary says:

    It’s just an observation but I am a smoker and I rarely get colds or the flu. So my question is: are there a larger number of non-smokers contracting coronavirus? And if so, then maybe some research in this direction would be worthwhile. I can’t vouch for other smokers but I know I can have people around me with colds or the flu and I simply don’t get it…..most times.

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