Why the key to compliance is all in the messaging

Gavan Fitzsimons knows what makes us tick. As consumer psychologist, Gavan has partnered with some of the world’s leading companies to study how we make choices from the food we eat to the products we buy. Lately, he’s been focusing on attitudes regarding COVID-19 and why some people comply with social distancing or wearing masks, while others resist. Gavan explains how leaders can be more strategic in their messaging to appeal to more people to comply with safety measures.

Dean Bill Boulding interviews Gavan Fitzsimons on Instagram

Gavan Fitzsimons, Edward & Rose Donnell Professor of Marketing and Psychology

“I’ve been studying this, ‘you’re not the boss of me’ psychology for many years now. Any of us that have children have experienced it. Currently, trying to get your kids to do their homework, as you are the home schooling lead, and the kids would rather do anything than the homework they are supposed to do. And this really falls down to a basic reaction when people take away what we feel are our freedoms to choose. Across the globe, people will defend their freedoms to choose quite aggressively. And it makes sense. If I told you that you can only have water, milk or juice, and then I said, ‘Oh wait, you can’t have the milk. You can have water or juice.’ It turns out you are going to want the milk. And that makes sense, to preserve your decision freedoms. And you may want milk in certain environments. And so you are going to want to fight for that. We are all living that out firsthand right now in a grocery store setting. Toilet paper, all of a sudden, has become the most desirable good in the world. That simple product not being available is how I started to get interested in this problem. Why are people reacting so aggressively? Why is toilet paper so desirable to everyone? Again, it falls back to this notion that we want to preserve our rights to choose and be free to choose our behaviors.”


“In the COVID context right now, it’s playing out not just because we can’t get certain products, but we are being asked and told in many situations to engage in certain behaviors. The same underlying psychology applies when someone says, ‘Listen, you’ve got to wear a mask.’ My personal instinctive reaction when someone says, ‘You’ve got to wear a mask,’ is, ‘Well, I don’t want to wear a mask. Why should I have to wear a mask? What’s the logic of wearing a mask? I thought that the CDC told us that masks didn’t help prevent the spread of the disease.’ And many of the folks watching may have that same instinctual reaction. Turns out MBAs, as a group, tend to rank pretty highly on wanting to preserve their individual freedoms. The trouble is that that reaction leads us to not to want to comply.”


“We’ve been working and studying with a variety of partners around the world to try and see if, knowing that a good number of people are going to have that reaction, if we can’t convey the information in a more effective way, so that folks will wear the masks and stay six feet apart, etc. The magic, if you like, the solution, the behavioral science that we’ve worked out to try to be effective in getting people to follow guidelines is to try to A, give folks something positive to center around. And B, give them a sense of agency. Give them a sense that they can actually have a choice. And if they choose to engage in some of these recommended behaviors, a positive outcome will be the result.”


“If you’ve got the, ‘I need to go out and work. And I have to do so to support my family’ idea, that’s a huge, powerful motivator. And then if you add on top of that this resistance to the freedom to make the choice for yourself, there is no chance you are going to follow the guidelines. We can’t and shouldn’t, I don’t think, ever ask someone to dampen their motivation to go out and provide for their family. That is a key, fundamental human need. But what we can do is try to encourage them to do so but do it in a safer way. Go to work, provide for your family. But wear a mask while doing so. That’s the idea. If we can dampen the resistance to some of the social distancing guidelines, maybe people will be able to provide, but do so in a safer manner.”


“Governments have been telling people, ‘You must do this. You must, you must, you must.’ And they have not been giving people the positive motivation to why they should do these things. Many of our successful leaders in business have been doing a little more of the positive messaging. I was just on a call yesterday with a Fuqua alum who runs an investment bank. They do mergers and acquisitions. They’ve been distancing at work up until recently. Their team desperately wants to get back to work. And by that, I mean back together. They are trying to put together a program where people can come back together. They still need people to stay six feet apart. They need people to wear masks if they are not six feet apart, etc. But their messaging, and one of the reasons we were talking, they are trying to test out their messaging on me. Their messaging is about, ‘Guys, we have a great work environment here. We love to be together as a team. Let’s enable that by engaging in social distancing and wearing a mask if we are not. So there is a positive, everyone wants to be there. They want to be with their friends, they want to bounce those ideas off in person.”


“The behaviors you are being asked to do are the same ones that the government are asking you to do. Right now, people want to come back, in person, by and large. And so, if you can convey it in a positive way, which many of the companies that are lead by our alums are doing, it’s received so much more positively than, ‘You must, you must, you must,’ without any kind of positive there for folks.”


“I can’t think of a better time to come to business school. There is the obvious economic argument. With all the turbulence in the environment, now would be a good time to spend two years developing your skillset. Way beyond that, with this kind of turbulence, it means that the need for leaders that can identify problems and come up with solutions to those problems and deliver and implement them better than any of their competitors can, the world needs leaders like that right now. Business school for me, I really feel strongly that business school is an opportunity to develop your own skillset and develop an undertstanding of what your strengths and weaknesses are. And then take those, combine them with the knowledge that you get at business school to go out into the world and say, ‘Oh wow, look at that, there is a problem that is out there. No one has come up with a solution for it. Maybe I am the one that can come up with that solution and figure out how to get it out there.’ Right now, we need more smart, well-trained leaders. And if I were thinking about coming to business school right now, that’s the argument. This is the time. And the reality is, let’s face it, turbulence is going to be part of our life forever. I am not suggesting the pandemic will be. But there is always something that comes up. And there are challenges that come up down the line. And the skills that you get at a top program like Fuqua, are going to enable you to be ready to lead a team in those environments for many, many years to come.”

Quick Facts

Area: Marketing

Elective Course: Global Financial Management

Researches: Marketing Strategy, Entrepreneurial Marketing, Consumer Behavior

Street Cred:

Partners with some of the world’s leading companies in understanding how people make choices


Fellow at the Association for Psychological Science (Since 2015)


Associated with the Marketing Science Institute, the Association for Consumer

Research and the Society for Consumer Psychology


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