Put that light out. Get out of the park. Lessons from the behavioural science of 1939-45.


British wartime posters warned of the consequence of disobedience

Depending on your level of cynicism or perhaps your workload, we’re either in the middle of a boom in behavioural science or we’re over-playing our hand. My personal opinion is that it is no more or less than it has ever been; perspective will emerge over time but, evidentially, it has been behavioural interventions that have had the most significant impact in these opening battles with COVID19, not least because currently there is neither a vaccine nor a cure.

Historical perspective is something I thought I’d share today to perhaps point out some interesting parallels with how society is both encouraged and legislatively required to behave under threat.

In 1939 the journalist Mea Allan described London’s descent into darkness thus:

“I stood on the footway of Hungerford bridge across the Thames watching the lights of London go out. The whole great town was lit up like a fairyland, in a dazzle that reached into the sky, and then one by one, as a switch was pulled, each area went dark, the dazzle becoming a patchwork of lights being snuffed out here and there until a last one remained, and it too went out. What was left us was more than just wartime blackout, it was a fearful portent of what war was to be. We had not thought that we would have to fight in darkness, or that light would be our enemy.”

On the 1st September, two days before war was declared, the nation was expected to extinguish lights after dark, to prevent the Luftwaffe from identifying areas of human population or movement which would allow them to target their ordnance. The nation lived under these regulations for 5 years, 7 months and 22 days. Although it had been tested briefly during zeppelin raids in 1915, the blackout this time was not simply a dimming of light, it was comprehensive, vital.

The blackout was also not simply a request, it was an instruction, asserted in law and policed by air raid precautions (ARP) wardens. Guidance was provided and the public was readied for this change with rehearsals during 1938. By the autumn of 1939 streetlights were extinguished, curtains were lined and thickened (and were not to be washed, less they thinned), cardboard and paint applied to windows. Even cars and pushbike lights were shuttered downwards.

Living in near-total darkness outside wasn’t easy. Overnight houses, factories and pubs would become suffocatingly stale and stuffy, raising and removing coverings were tedious. Traffic accidents soared, crime experienced an uptick. Again, the resourceful public responded by daubing kerbs, street furniture, railings and even cattle with white paint and the government played their part by lowering speed limits and beginning the marking of roads with white paint. Interventions even extended to advising pedestrians to walk with a newspaper, white handkerchief or leave their shirttails exposed.

For the most part, the public adhered to these conditions – it was quite apparent that disobedience could result in the clear and present danger of a bomb being dispatched over your house. If the fear of a bomb was insufficient or apparently remote, fines and court appearances gave it more immediate salience.


During the 2020 pandemic, society is facing a similarly disorientating and debilitating curtailment of primal need. This time it’s not light, it’s movement, social contact and space that is under restriction. Restrictions that are not from sunset to sunrise but all day long. It’s important to state here that I draw this comparison not to assert one being worse than the other, simply to contextualise the manner in which a society’s behavioural norms are first changed instantly and then must be sustained over a considerable period.

In the opening period of the pandemic response from the British government, there were a series of interventions aimed at slowing the transmission of this highly contagious virus. The public was urged to ‘self-isolate’ if showing symptoms, to ‘social distance’ and to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly. On the latter at least guidance was provided. In these interventions it could be argued that the guidance was particularly individualised, focussing on what we as one person could and should do. A direction, perhaps, that simplicity in messaging is important. However, a subtle tweak then occurred as observers noted that ‘self-isolate’ and ‘social distance’ although helpful in the epidemiological context, was tinged with negativity and thus harder to sustain longer-term (which would be required as the modelling had indicated) as they ran counter to our primal wiring to be sociable beings. This tonal change resulted in ‘stay at home’, essentially being the same advice but reframed in the more pastoral and parochial sense of being amongst familiar surroundings and implying that staying with the family group was ok. The advice to ‘self-isolate’ remained but was now specified to individuals displaying the symptoms of COVID19 not as a general preventative measure. With ‘social distancing’ the next iteration attempted to reframe this challenging behavioural change.

The advice to ‘stay at home’ was augmented with two additional parts. ‘Protect the NHS’ and ‘Save Lives’ Rhetorically this is clearly from the same communications school as ‘Get Brexit Done’, ‘See it. Say it. Sort it’ and adheres to many of the rules of good writing we know from the advertising and creative industries. Clearly, the rule of three is deployed once more, but to borrow also from Ogilvy:

  • Write the way you talk…. ‘Stay at home
  • Use short words … yep.
  • No jargon … ‘self isolate
  • Make it crystal clear
  • If you want action, don’t [just] write, tell … and this is being told, a lot

So, linguistically, it’s on the money. It’s apparent too that it’s a behavioural tweak: behaviours that were self-protecting (‘don’t let the Germans bomb my house … but maybe they’ll miss?) become societal protection. Although you might not feel personally at threat by COVID19, your individual actions are for the greater good.

In ‘Protect the NHS’ the government has identified and leveraged the quasi-religious devotion to the NHS, almost universal amongst the British public. For ‘NHS’ read ‘country’ and here, although the nation is not under unique attack, global as this pandemic is by definition, the NHS becomes both a literal organisation to protect – if we protect our health service from being overwhelmed it will function effectively – and metaphorical representation of Britishness. The coda to ‘save lives’ becomes almost incidental but its plurality is important. We, collectively are saving multiple lives with our behaviour, this is not simply self-preservation, it’s a collective responsibility to save the lives of other people even if you personally do not feel vulnerable.

Aside: The Government has iterated the messaging graphics used to decorate the lectern, optimising the televisual clarity and neutralising the implied party-political colouring.


Iterations of the Coronavirus briefing lectern graphics.

To add to this central message, further advice highlighted the protective responsibility: as over 70s and the immunocompromised were at higher risk, they were required to stay indoors and have no physical contact for shopping or other reasons. The most obvious negative interpretation of this is the profound isolation and anxiety this would cause. Consequently, this was framed as ‘shielding’. A more intimate, protective tone that shifted the obligation away from those being shielded, unburdening them with the responsibility the rest of us should bear to keep them safe.

So, the message was out and we were, in the most part, adhering. Availability and negativity biases went to work amongst the press as the disobedience was highlighted: It’s far easier to show a handful of people sunbathing in parks or gathering for illicit parties than it is to photograph the millions upon millions of people doing exactly as they were advised. It’s human nature to point the finger at the black sheep amongst us and I am under no doubt whatsoever that if social media had been present during WW2 that the great British public would have been passionate in shaming their neighbours. Indeed, of course, they did such that “careless talk, [and behaviours], costs lives”.

Shaming was seen in authority too and to return to 1939-45, eventually the ARP’s admonishing ‘put that light out’ began to symbolise a certain jobsworth pedantry, most obviously through ‘Dad’s Army‘, and the truth is that it was an instruction that was rarely needed, so effective was the societal pressure. Warden Hodges found his modern-day companions in Derbyshire Police, so memorably excoriated by Lord Sumption for their drone surveillance of socially-distanced dog-walkers.

It may be that I have over-egged this particular historical comparison and inferred too much with too little knowledge. Hindsight will, as is so painfully true in all the interventions we are witnessing to today, be the judge.

Perhaps the easiest way to summarise this is to say that it’s the individual threat which kicks us into action, whether that by an invisible virus or an airborne bomb, but it is the collective responsibility and societal pressure that will ensure we sustain it.

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