Courtesy of Katy Milkman ’04
The virus relies on human social habits that can be changed

Like all viruses, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 relies on human cellular biology to reproduce within cells, and on human social behaviors to travel, spreading around the world one interaction at a time. But for Katy Milkman ’04, a professor at Penn’s Wharton School, the virus’s reliance on humans’ social habits opens the door for a behavioral scientist like her to help lessen the toll of the pandemic. 

As COVID-19 cases began appearing in the United States, Milkman says, it was clear there would be many “disruptions” to her teams’ life, from the direct health risks to the transition to working from home – especially because Milkman and several other team members have small children. But she wondered whether their scholarship could be of help. 

Milkman is quick to acknowledge that she isn’t a physician or a public-health expert, so she expects her contributions to be “pretty small in the grand scheme of things.” But she is co-director of Wharton’s Behavior Change for Good Initiative, which connects researchers in its team with large organizations — gyms, schools, banks — that want to help people develop better habits, like working out regularly or saving money. Milkman’s research focuses on how people can use tricks such as temptation bundling, in which a virtuous behavior (like scheduled exercise) is associated with a temptation (like an engrossing audiobook you only listen to at the gym) to change their habits. Slowing the spread of COVID-19 requires many people to change habits — from handwashing to shopping — so Milkman’s team started thinking about ways to get involved. 

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Her team began brainstorming, at daily, informal “water cooler” chats over zoom, and the Initiative put a banner on its website alerting leaders and policymakers of their expertise. “It was amazing to see a collective ramp up in activity right when you might expect personal challenges to slow everyone down,” says Milkman. 

Helping, in this case, has meant answering questions – from policymakers and NGOs who reach out through the website, or from Penn students themselves: for instance, the team surveyed business students on the study habits they’ve found helpful in the digital classroom – from the best software for taking notes during virtual seminars to strategies for carving out study time amidst other obligations at home – and then encouraged students to try what their peers had found effective. Milkman had previously developed this intervention, called “copy paste” prompt with the Initiative’s co-director Angela Duckworth. These suggestions are just ideas, not active research, says Milkman: Though a few hospitals reached out for advice, “I have no idea what if anything we suggested is being implemented. I hope it’s coming in handy but the health systems we assisted are pretty inundated and haven’t provided updates.” 

Milkman and her colleagues are launching new research efforts to help the public-health response to COVID-19. In a project led by Erika Kirgios ’17, the team is working with a nonprofit called Innovations for Poverty Action to test which public-health messaging best helps people wash hands and stay home. “We’ll be testing a number of ideas,” says Milkman: For instance, can authorities make text-message health advisories more compelling by evoking specific people the advice might help, or encouraging recipients to reply to the message?   

Finally, Milkman wants to get the word out about how people can navigate the mental-health challenges posed by this global disruption. On a special episode of her podcast, “Choiceology,” she talked about how to be intentional about staying connected with our friends and communities despite physical isolation. Finding a way to contribute through small acts she says, whether that’s grocery shopping for a neighbor or, for those who are able, donating to a food bank — “Not only are [those acts of generosity] helping other people, but they’re also helping the people who are doing them.” 

Read more about Katy Milkman’s work in behavior science in this 2016 PAW feature.