Psychology, swine flu, memory and communication

Research done by Ley (1988) suggested that to enable patients to remember what advice they had been given doctors and nurses should give the most important information first, thus exploiting the primacy effect. Information also needs to be understandable ( well, what a surprise!) so simple sentences and language are appropriate. Instructions need to be explicit, and prefaced by their category, e.g. “this is the problem …”, or “this is what you need to do”, and “this is how you can do it”. Repetition is also helpful in accurate recall.

Now in 2009 similar information is being given by Fischhoff who has pointed out the relevance of psychological research to addressing the current health issue. He has told USA authorities that health communications should

  • Be truthful, factual, even is this is worrying, i.e. demonstrate that you trust your audience.
  • Focus only on the most critical facts as people can retain only so much information. (Remember Miller’s magic number and chunking?)
  • Emotions can interfere with memory (Loftus showed this a long time ago) so communicators should be calm and positive in their manner.
  • Recommendations need to be reasonable for the target population so they can see that they can be successful in complying and therefore carry on listening and remembering ( locus of control v learned helplessness; cognitive consistency).

I do wonder if these recommendations could be spread more widely – Westminster comes to mind!