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How A Virus Outbreak Affects Consumer Psychology

People experiencing fear tend to conform more, and how to make this work in your favour

Photo by Jack Hunter on Unsplash

Shoppers pushing trolleys, overflowing with packets of instant noodles. Supermarket aisles completely empty and snaking queues outside pharmacies. These are some of the photos that have gone viral in Singapore recently as residents began to take the coronavirus situation more seriously.

Many young, educated Singaporeans responded to such scenes with criticism invoking Singapore’s infamous kiasu (fear of losing out) attitude, or a distinguished local politician’s comment about Singapore being a first world country with third world citizens. 

Sorry to disappoint my fellow Singaporeans, but such behaviours and attitudes are not unique to Singapore; we are not special. Fear affects all human beings in more or less the same way. 

Safety in numbers. When our survival is being threatened, we tend to be more conforming. We follow the herd not because it produces the best results, but because we’re less likely to be making a mistake. This tendency is especially useful in situations we don’t have sufficient information or experience with, such as a virus outbreak – and even if following the crowd turns out to be a mistake, we are comforted by the fact that other people are also making the same mistake.

In an experiment – that’s more than appropriate to the coronavirus situation, Dr Michele Gelfand and her colleagues surveyed people who have just watched Contagion, a terrifyingly realistic film about the spread of a virus. They found that those moviegoers are more hostile towards other people who have disobeyed social norms, compared to moviegoers who watched other films.

Another group of researchers discovered that people who have just watched the classic thriller The Shining preferred an ad that provided social proof (“visited by over a million people each year”). Meanwhile, people who have just watched the romantic film Before Sunrise were more drawn to an ad that emphasised standing out from the crowd.

From decades worth of data representing 90% of the world’s population, it has also been found that societies that feel low levels of security in their own survival are more inclined towards social conformity. It’s important to survive before you can thrive.

A shift towards increased consumer conformity has also been noted in China during the SARS outbreak.

Marketing implications. Even as the coronavirus situation develops, the business has to go on, but definitely not as usual. Marketing teams will have to adapt to the abovementioned changing aspect of consumer psychology.

The most obvious application of this knowledge is the use of social proof. Messages like “9/10 people prefer brand X” work well in normal times, and will work even better in uncertain times. Other ways to apply social proof include the use of testimonials and increasing the visibility of your brand or product. Whatever it takes to communicate to consumers that they’re not going to make a mistake by choosing your brand.

What if you’re a small brand and you simply don’t have that kind of widespread adoption or visibility yet? I would argue that uncertain times are opportunities for you to create the impression of widespread adoption and visibility. When the mass market is primed towards following the herd, you’ll want to ride that wave.

Most importantly… Get sufficient sleep, water and exercise. Take care and I’ll see you in my next article.

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Arthur Koh
Written By

Arthur Koh is a mass behaviour consultant based in Singapore. He combines insights from behavioural economics, network science, social psychology, and marcom to bring the mass audience in touch with organisational goals. Follow him on LinkedIn or his website.

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