What drives us in the age of corona

The Corona Behavioural Unit at RIVM has been working non-stop since April 2020. It was founded as a direct response to the coronavirus crisis. There was already a significant body of behavioural expertise within RIVM, but the Behavioural Unit now combines it into one unit, supported by external experts. Mariken Leurs and Reint Jan Renes explain more about what this Behavioural Unit contributes. “Take people’s reality into account, and you boost the chances of them being able to incorporate the measures into their lives.”

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Reint Jan Renes about what drives us

Reint Jan Renes is professor of Psychology for Sustainable Cities at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, and supports RIVM’s Corona Behavioural Unit as an external expert. “It is important to know what drives us,” he says. “We do not want to get sick or make anyone else sick, but we do want to be close to other people. That drives us too.”

“Virologists want to know everything about the coronavirus, and massive research efforts are examining every aspect of it. We want to know everything about the behaviour surrounding this infectious disease. That behaviour is something we can measure and monitor. We need all these ingredients to be able to give more specifically targeted advice. That includes advice on the feasibility of the behavioural rules, like staying 1.5 metres apart, or washing hands. We look at each measure and ask: Are you able to do this? Do you think you can keep it up for a long time? If we know these answers, we can work with that information.”


“People want to comply with the corona rules, but it’s difficult to keep up the willpower to do so for months. So we take that human experience factor into account. When you consider people’s reality, you boost the chances of them being able to incorporate the measures into their lives. The addition of ‘well-being’ in our research is very important, in my opinion. People working from home have a different daily rhythm, or no rhythm at all. How are they coping? That is when resilience becomes important. Well-being is a key part of the ability to keep complying.”

Using our own best judgement

“Individual questions are also becoming more pressing. People are increasingly having to use their own best judgement; this is what we call ‘self-regulation’. Self-regulation is a decision like: ‘I will not go to the supermarket on Saturday afternoon, because it is too busy then.’ We have to think about: what is needed to be able to make a minimal consideration? With all the areas of expertise bundled together, we will be able to avert the corona crisis. Behavioural expertise is a fundamental component. Our behaviour makes the difference in whether or not the coronavirus will spread.”

Mariken Leurs: knowledge about behaviour is needed

Mariken Leurs is head of the Corona Behavioural Unit at RIVM. She also runs the RIVM Centre for Health and Society.

“Keeping people healthy is what we are here for. We apply the expertise from behavioural science during the corona crisis, in order to get the virus under control and keep it that way. The aim is to ensure that the behaviour we need now can also be sustained.”

Sustaining new behaviour

“Our primary task is to establish a solid scientific basis to answer the most important questions. We are looking for the mental factors that have an impact on behaviour. To a very large degree, it is about well-being. All these factors together help us maintain this new behaviour.”

“The Corona Behavioural Unit at RIVM is made up of a core team of five people, plus another fifty or so who are involved in the Behavioural Unit but who are assigned across various different work packages. We also have fifteen professors with expertise in the behavioural sciences on an independent Scientific Advisory Council that advises us.”

Familiar territory

“Behaviour is familiar territory for RIVM. In the Centre for Healthy Living, for example, we have been relying on behavioural research for years, using that knowledge to promote health.”

“In this Behavioural Unit, what we want to do is take that behavioural expertise to the next level. Right now the most important thing is the behaviour surrounding the novel coronavirus. But behaviour is a part of so many of the societally relevant solutions that RIVM is engaged with. Infectious diseases, climate, healthy lifestyle – so much is tied into behaviour.”

Many people willing to isolate at home in case of positive COVID-19 test

The sense of threatening danger from the novel coronavirus is declining. People are feeling less anxious and despondent than in the initial phase of the coronavirus pandemic. Compliance with hygiene measures, such as frequent hand-washing and sneezing into the elbow, remains stable. Staying 1.5 metres apart is growing more difficult, and that includes visits in the home. Many people with cold symptoms indicate that they are not staying indoors or do not plan to get tested. However, if they themselves or their household members were to test positive for COVID-19, many people are willing to go into home isolation for two weeks.

This was clear from the third behavioural study conducted by RIVM and the regional public health services. These insights help the government to provide better support and information to citizens.

Some 60,000 people are taking part in this study, which is repeated five times (at three-week intervals).

More information about the behavioural study