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Cognitive Bias and Public Health Policy

As public health marketers it is our job to promote policies and behaviors that will promote informed decision making. To do this work, marketers must combat cognitive biases people may hold, especially when these biases would result in worse health outcomes.  While individual biases will always occur, we as marketers should keep them in mind when developing messaging.

Pandemics and Bias

The Covid-19 pandemic uncovered several biases within our public health systems. One of the most notable was the Availability Bias. Since the US had not experienced a large-scale viral outbreak since 1920, American populations were less likely to see Covid-19 as a major threat. Meanwhile, South Korea has been impacted by novel viruses more recently, so their people took precautionary measures more seriously. 

In the US, the Identifiable Victim Effect also had major implications to public health policy. Public health data is often given on the population level, which can make it difficult for individuals to conceptualize the threat. Early on, people were much more concerned with the availability of ventilators than social distancing and masking. The tragic stories of people unable to find a ventilator were much more immediate given the bias toward individual stories. However, while the availability of ventilators was important, proper mask use and social distancing was much more effective at decreasing the mortality rates.

There will always be personal biases that prevent individuals form engaging in public health actions. However, as public health marketers we must understand these biases to address them. The success of public health policy depends on convincing a wide range of people and overcoming pre-existing thoughts and beliefs in some segments of that population.  

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