It would be difficult to look at the scenes from the Holylands of Belfast in the last number of days and not be very concerned. Scores of students partying until the early hours of the morning caused understandable frustration and fury among residents and a media furore.
Either the young people in question do not fully understand the risk to themselves and others around them, or, the public awareness campaign is not persuading them sufficiently, or, they both understand and are persuaded but are choosing to ignore their better judgement anyway.
The last of the three is not a problem unique to students when it comes to complying with the public health guidelines in Northern Ireland.
We can all agree there is a problem here. The question, then, is the solution. The most compelling of takes on this was, in my view, from Allison Morris from the Irish News who said in a tweet:
“Those students must be touched how worried everyone is about them now, no one worried when they working in supermarkets on minimum wage throughout lockdown while the rest of us where safely at home, or waiting tables when the gov told people to eat out..”
The wider point being made here is about the way we are ultimately trying to persuade groups of people, students included, to adhere to the guidelines as communicated through the public awareness campaign. In this analysis of the situation, there is clearly an inconsistency and asymmetry.
The overwhelming health and economic narrative of the pandemic has focused on the impact on people over the age of 25 or school age children. Significantly less attention has been given to the current and future impact on students, many of whom prop up the retail and hospitality sectors whose plight we hear about on a daily basis.
As Ulster Bank Chief Economist, Richard Ramsey, recently put it, “if our older people are the forefront of a health emergency, our young people are at the forefront of an economic emergency”.
Inconsistency and asymmetry breed a perception of unfairness, followed by resentment, and ultimately result in non-compliance.
But in typical Northern Ireland fashion, we react. We shout. We condemn. And all without thinking and without taking a take a step back and asking ourselves whether this is the most effective way to achieve our goal which is, in this case, persuading more people to do the right thing.
Our outrage distracts us from the problem at hand.
Having worked for a time on government behavioural change campaigns, you quickly learn that in the absence of a deterrent strong enough (not to mention the capacity to enforce it!) to ensure compliance of a particular behaviour, which is mostly the case in a liberal democracy such as ours, you’re relying on the carrot approach. The art of persuasion.
There is a whole discipline of communications devoted to incorporating behavioural science and psychology into public awareness campaigns, but it is worth reminding ourselves of the basics.
Persuasion is a two-way street – give and take. It requires the communicator to be understanding of the position of the receiver and what messaging is likely to encourage them or discourage them. To take a simplistic example but one which we now know a lot about – if you’re trying to encourage a smoker to quit, you’re unlikely to be successful if you seek to make them feel bad or guilty about smoking.
But take, for example, the 2019 Road Safety Scotland and Scottish Government campaign which targeted young male drivers between the age of 20-29. The campaign shows their Grandmother appear in the car beside them expressing her disappointment at the speed in which they are driving.
The Scottish Government, award-winning with their social behavioural change campaigns, recognised that research into driving behaviour found that young men believe they drive better with “precious cargo” in their car, such as elderly relatives.
This appeal to a young driver’s better nature is a much more sophisticated and nuanced approach which draws on their emotional triggers and drivers.
Nobody is denying the behaviour in the Holylands is something we should be trying to stop or even that it is completely unacceptable. In fact, if you ask any resident living in the area this is just the next iteration of a much wider, longstanding issue about the behaviour of the student population in the area.
But the latter isn’t the task at hand and until there are enforceable deterrents in place, sufficiently strong to make the stick approach effective, perhaps we might catch more students with honey than with vinegar.
Gareth Brown is a political commentator, former Stormont and Cabinet Office adviser, and a Client Director at LK Communications.