The Brain-Friendly Brilliance of ‘Stay Home, Stop the Spread, Save Lives’


During times of crisis, organizations are subjected to unprecedented levels of uncertainty. As people begin to settle into the new reality of working from home, difficult questions about the future spring to mind: How long will this crisis last? When will we return to “normal”? Is my job secure?

Based on the science of behavior change, what people need are simple, easy-to-use tools that keep us thinking and working effectively. Certain organizations around the world have succeeded in creating clarity for their people by observing that lesson, and we can use their blueprint to guide day-to-day behavior in our own organizations.

Focusing on the essential

In order for us to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, we’re told we need to “flatten the curve” and stay home. Making that happen is, in essence, changing people’s habits—not an easy task in a world of more than 7 billion people. This is where the science of recall comes in.

Our natural tendency is to articulate every behavior that we want people to follow. How many documents have you seen that detail an exhaustive list of ways to keep you and your family safe during the pandemic? How many of those items on that list can you remember?

Research shows we need to focus on what can be recalled. When we create a model that is easy to remember and easy to use, it can become a massive driver of behavior change. The issue with recall is the daily battle over what gets our attention. This is why the model has to be essential rather than exhaustive.

NLI has conducted industry research on the most essential elements of successful leadership models: they have to be sticky, meaningful, and coherent. A sticky model is one that is easily stored in memory, as people are more likely to remember what they are able to repeat. The meaningful component ensures that you can connect to the model’s language and apply it to your larger purpose. And the model has to be coherent in that it’s relevant to your other goals and initiatives.

Navigating turbulence

“Stay home; Stop the spread; Save lives.” These seven words may seem simple and obvious, but their arrangement is deceptively clever. For starters, note the ease with which we can recall this model. It is sticky, with only seven syllables in total. It’s also incredibly meaningful when it comes to language; if you stay home you can actually save lives! And it’s coherent, since it’s in line with a lot of what the leading experts in the field are telling us to do. In other words, this guide is essential rather than exhaustive.

Of course, there are many other important instructions that could have been chosen to help “flatten the curve”: wash your hands, cover your mouth, maintain six feet of distance, to name a few. But with each new recommendation we’re given, we lose a bit of the clarity of what, exactly, we’re meant to do.

Instead, the messaging has focused on the most essential actions that citizens can take—and they were shared in a sticky, meaningful, and coherent manner.

New York State, the hardest hit region of the United States by far, was among the first to circulate this communication. During Governor Andrew Cuomo’s much publicized daily press briefings, the words “Stay home; Stop the Spread; Save Lives” are displayed across the bottom of every slide. The United Kingdom has also adopted similar messaging, urging its citizens to: “Stay home; Protect the NHS; Save lives.” No matter your politics, these messages accommodate the limits of our cognitive function, so they are more likely to succeed.

As the world reels from the devastating effects of the novel coronavirus, science tells us that a simple set of principles are what’s needed to guide our day-to-day behavior. Governments are already creating those principles for their citizens. Perhaps the next time you’re washing your hands, take a second and ask yourself: What are the sticky, meaningful and coherent behaviors you want your organization to live by?

Author: Jack Graylin

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