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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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Utilizing Population Data in Public Health Marketing

As a public health marketer population data can be a useful tool when developing campaigns and programing. Having a clear understanding of what the health habits and opinions of a population can help marketers meet people where they are and not speak ‘above’ or ‘below’ them.

Challenges Faced

There can be challenges however when using population health data. One of the most common is unreliable data due to respondent bias. It is not uncommon for an individual to misrepresent themselves if they think that their thoughts or actions are the ‘incorrect’ or ‘unhealthy’ ones, leading to less than accurate data.

Strategies for Success

This inaccuracy in data is often overcome in two ways. The first strategy is to ensure that survey questions are asked in a way that is not leading respondents towards one answer or another. The second common strategy is to cross check the responses with those from other similar datasets to check for any obvious inconsistencies.

Ultimately, accurate data is essential to building effective public health communications and marketing. With just a few additional steps, you can make sure that the data you’re using is reliable.