To touch or not to touch

How the cootie effect can reduce the spread of the corona virus

The so-called "Cootie Effect" can be an effective measure to help slow down the spread of viruses. It means that by creating a mental image in people's head of potential contagioussness, you make them avoid an object. EGGS has designed stickers that can be printed and used freely for this purpose. You find them in the article.

This article was originally published in Norwegian in Dagsavisen and in Danish in Politiken. It's written by EGGS' CEO Ulla Sommerfelt and Sally Khallash, Behavioural decision making expert.

"You sure are beating the pandemic with authoritarianism," a US colleague said half in admiration, half in critique after an online meeting a few weeks back. "It's not authoritarianism," we corrected him. "It's solidarity."

Scandinavia has been shut down since the beginning of March. It's humbling to see how far we as individuals and professionals are willing to go to lift as a team. How much loneliness, stress, and financial burden we'll shoulder to protect each other.

Behavioural fatigue

A couple of months is a long time. As a friend joked, "we've all been sentenced to confinement." She's a lawyer, so bear with the dry humour. Because it's true that each and every one of us has been under house arrest, some with fellow prisoners and others in isolation. Our great determination and motivation, however, is beginning to wear off.

We get cognitively depleted from having to perform a demanding or unpleasant task for an extended period. Our mental resources to stick with rigorous demands get drained, and we begin to relax on following the rules that restrain us or others.
Sally Khallash, Behavioural decision making expert

"Danes are starting to show signs of exhaustion," Professor Michael Bang Petersen told Berlingske. That probably applies to all of us in Scandinavia. Behavioural scientists call it "behavioural fatigue."

What that means is that we get cognitively depleted from having to perform a demanding or unpleasant task for an extended period. Our mental resources to stick with rigorous demands get drained, and we begin to relax on following the rules that restrain us or others. We forget stuff like sanitising our hands before, during, and after a trip to Lidl. We stand a little closer to friends we meet on the street because it's nice to feel connected. We forget social distancing and lump together with the other parents at the playground.

It's only human. We are not doing it to rebel, but because we're tired after some difficult months. And this inhibits our ability to follow official recommendations to the dot. Governments can't trust that we'll do as we're told just because they told us so at yet another press conference. We just don't have the energy.

The coronavirus doesn't get fatigued, however, so how can we avoid getting fatigued as well?

Behavioural design works better than punishments

One approach is punishment and fines. These have already been introduced several places in Europe and are an effective behaviour regulator - if we know for sure we'll be punished when we break the rules. Otherwise, these won't work. Since the police don't have sufficient resources to be everywhere all the time and we don't want to live in a society of snitches, it's probably not the road to success.

Then there is psychology and behavioural design. Here's an example:

Imagine you see a container on the table with the label "contains toxic cyanide." Would you eat from it? Probably not. But the odd thing is that we're as reluctant to eat from a spotlessly clean container when we moments ago took a sticker, wrote "cyanide" on it, and attached it to the uncontaminated container.

The cootie effect

It doesn't make sense, but it's human. Behavioural scientists call it "Object Contagion," but let's call it "the Cootie Effect." It simply means that objects that trigger an unconscious sense of disgust. The mere thought of consuming cyanide – can contaminate our perception of something else – a container we know is clean and has never been near cyanide.

The Cootie Effect is a great behavioural tool to limit the spread of infection, especially now that Scandinavian communities are slowly opening up.

Why? Because there're doors everywhere that need opening. Door handles we have to push, twist, or pull are a sure way to spread the virus from person to person.

The cootie effect creates mental images of virus and disease and makes us avoid touching objects that could be contaminated.

That's nothing new. We've seen stickers and signs on bathroom doors or on the Oslo ferry, encouraging us to avoid the virus by avoid grabbing the handle with our bare hands. The problem is that most of them have no effect what so ever. To most of us, opening a door is an unconscious act, not something we pause to ponder over. We're in automation mode and don't stop to read elaborate instructions or warnings before opening doors. We just go ahead and open them. The action is over long before we even notice any signs.

So, signs with instructive texts written on them are the worst way to get people to act. There's a much better way to deal with the door handle problem: Change the handle itself.

It's the Cootie Effect in full force. You'll hang a sign with germs, bacteria, and other revolting stuff on the door handle and get an instant reaction. Evolution has fine-tuned our primitive brain to register danger and respond immediately. We jump back in the instant when seeing a snake out of the corner of the eye. It's only seconds later we notice it's just a piece of rope. We think cookies next to tampons taste worse. And it takes some serious persuasion to eat from the clean bowl with the cyanide sign on, even though our conscious brain knows the container is perfectly clean.

From a survival perspective, it makes sense. Why risk anything when it takes so little to be on the safe side? Better safe than sorry.

The bacteria signs have the same effect. Our primitive brain responds automatically with disgust, and we don't feel like touching the doorknob. If we accidentally touch it, we're filled with mental images of something contagious or dangerous.

That's the reaction we want in these coronavirus times. And why we got together to design these signs. They're made for you to print and hang on your door handle or knob. If you can, place a bottle of sanitiser next to it.

Hopefully, they'll help regulate our behaviour more than fines, bans, and written signs. Our brains dislike infections and viruses so much that just images of them can create a behavioural chain reaction that can help avoid the real ones.

Download and print our stickers for free

You can download and print our Covid-19 stickers and use them to help prevent virus spread:

Printand hang on doorknob.
Stickers in English
Stickers in Norwegian
Stickers in Danish

Sounds interesting?

Georgina Seviour

Let's talk to Senior Service Designer
Georgina Seviour
+47 919 05 664

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