Seek your senses -Living with Pandemic (3)

Any behaviour change program starts with awareness, and often ends with motivations and incentives. However these strategies have time and again proved to be inadequate in changing behaviours. A few examples to share:

We are aware of wearing seatbelt. But do we all wear? Truthfully?

We are aware that it is mandatory to adhere to the complete treatment course. But do we follow through, till the end?

We are aware that we need to wear a mask, mouth and nose closed. But do we all wear the mask correctly?

Many times awareness and motivators alone do not lead to action. Because, we discount the reward that we may see in the future and choose the reward of the present. So we trade safety (future reward) for comfort (reward in the present). We believe that since symptoms are no more, there is no need for the pills. So we discontinue. And sometimes we simply forget. Forget to carry the mask, or forget to hand wash for 20 full seconds.

It is in human nature to forget or leverage beliefs and be prejudiced. Is it then possible to help ourselves with these limitations?

Yes, and it is time that we use our senses!

Our perception of space and experiences is structured by our senses. While the research on the influence of sensorial cues on healthcare decisions is limited and need more evidence, a few results as presented here, have shown interesting impact on behaviours:

Smelly cues: Have you entered hotel bathrooms and felt lit up by the flower-y citrus-y fragrance? It is welcoming and upheaving. It brings out the scent of freshness and cleanliness. Odours as such have shown to sway emotions and behaviours. For example, a study among hospital users evidenced that priming with a strong fresh scent of citrus increased their rate of hand hygiene adherence (using the sanitizer) by around 80%. Taking cues from these studies, maybe it is time to hang that lemon/orange air freshener in bathrooms and office spaces.


Audio-Visual Reminders: Unless we have a medical condition or live in a polluted city, we are not habituated to wearing masks. In addition, masks and face shields are construed by many as uncomfortable to wear. Or many may believe that they are not required. In all, we don’t intend harm but there are various factors from forgetfulness to beliefs that may impede our adherence. So, a simple sensor based audio-visual reminder may go a long way. Not a visual display alone, or an auditory announcement alone, but both together, as we enter the various facilities. Many studies across healthcare adherence have found higher impact with combined audio-visual alerts than a single sensorial alert. The same audio-visual cues can be applied to encourage physical distancing and washing hands for 20 seconds.

Take it from a man: While on one hand the eternal movement for equality of women takes steam. On the other hand, our brains tend to rather surrender to the presence of a male. More particularly to the stare of male eyes, as opposed to female eyes. A randomised control trial exploring sensorial priming in hand hygiene adherence found that, placing a pair of male eyes above the hand gel had significantly shifted behaviours towards adherence, than that of female eyes. The reasons for this gendered reaction is unknown. But one could speculate that maybe male eyes seem more muscular and indicated power and strength. Or maybe that we are culturally conditioned to envision men as individuals with authority/power (authority bias). In both cases, a simple and gendered visual cue such as male eyes, triggered a non-conscious reaction towards adherence. Better use them while it works.

It is imperative to stress that we are still gaining more knowledge about the nuanced abilities of our senses and their impact on our perception. However, from what we have gathered, what is clear is that our senses have a more powerful impact on us than we are consciously aware. And for sure they are one to rely on for our survival.


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