Can the ‘flatten the curve’ infographic change social distancing behavior?; The story behind the research

Flatten the curve infographic
Flatten the curve infographic produced by the CDC, showed how disease-control behaviors could reduce the peak of infections in a pandemic. CDC / THE ECONOMIST / NAN LI

Researchers at UW-Madison, in the Department of Life Sciences Communication (LSC), have always been fascinated with studying public attitudes and behavior towards scientific topics. Through this pandemic, LSC faculty and students have been researching effective ways to communicate and encourage social distancing behavior, intending to minimize harmful impacts from COVID-19. LSC Assistant professor Nan Li and Ph.D. student Amanda Molder researched the effectiveness of the “Flatten the Curve” (FTC) infographic at encouraging social distancing. Their publication, “Can scientists use simple infographics to convince? Effects of the FTC charts on perceptions of, and behavioral intentions toward social distancing measures during the COVID-19 pandemic,” has just been published in Public Understanding of Science. Molder found the work for this publication to be especially interesting by stating, “it’s interesting to examine changing attitudes and evolving human behavior towards the COVID-19 public health guidance, especially as they become more deeply intertwined with political, social, and cultural ideologies.”


Women smiling at camera
LSC Assistant Professor Nan Li

Li and Molder researched the effectiveness of the FTC infographic during the fall of 2020. The pandemic, which was officially declared by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, had been ongoing for months before their research took place. At this time, people had a variety of attitudes towards social distancing behavior. Some people were very strict with social distancing, mask-wearing, and handwashing while others were more comfortable gathering with family and friends in public spaces while not wearing masks. While conducting their research, weekly average COVID-19 cases continued to rise. Thus, understanding effective strategies to encourage socially safe behavior was imperative. Assistant professor Li, who has been interested in the visual side of science communication for many years said, “I remember seeing some of my colleagues and friends post the FTC chart on their social media and talk about the idea when the pandemic first hit the U.S. I was immediately interested in how this messaging could help people understand the importance of preventative measures (e.g., social distancing) and motivate them to adopt such behaviors.”

The FTC infographic was created to display how non-medical interventions can help minimize impacts from COVID-19. “More than three-quarters of the survey respondents had seen the FTC chart by the time we collected data, which was five months into the pandemic,” stated Li. “Considering this was originally a chart published by the CDC in one of its 2007 reports, I was surprised to see how scientists could revamp the message and leverage the power of social media to turn this into a visual mantra that defines the country’s initial response to the pandemic.” Infographics, like FTC, are commonly used to communicate scientific information as they convey information easily and effectively. Being able to effectively communicate scientific information is the main objective for many social scientists. Molder is especially interested in visual communications, she stated, “I am interested in the ways that visual communication, design, and simple infographics, aid in greater understanding and accessibility of science, particularly if the information is overly complex.”


Women smiling at camera
LSC Ph.D. Student Amanda Molder

Once the survey results were in, Molder found a surprising trend, “I was initially surprised that people who were familiar with the graph did not have significantly different behavioral intentions toward social distancing, than those who were not familiar,” Molder stated. However, Li and Molder’s research found some interesting patterns between peoples’ beliefs and how that impacted one’s attitude towards social distancing behaviors. In general, out of all populations, older, as well as non-white individuals were more likely to see social distancing as an effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19. Thus, they were more willing to adopt social distancing behaviors as compared to other populations such as younger, as well as white individuals. In addition, political ideology impacted one’s belief of whether social distancing behaviors were effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19. On the spectrum of political ideologies, liberal Democrats were more likely to believe that social distancing is effective, that COVID-19 is controllable with interventions, and were more willing to practice social distancing than conservative Republicans. In general, trust also affected one’s perception of the effectiveness of social distancing behaviors. Thus, individuals who had high trust in medical professionals, scientists, and the CDC were more likely to adopt social distancing behavior than people who had low trust. Additionally, people who indicated they either had or thought they might have had COVID-19 were more likely to believe that social distancing is effective, and the pandemic is controllable with interventions.


Understanding how people perceive infographics and communications about COVID-19 safety measures may increase or decrease the impact and length of the pandemic. If individuals are convinced by an infographic that social distancing behaviors are effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19, then they will be more likely to adopt that behavior. Infographics with their lack of words and explanations may be perceived differently by different people. Thus, understanding how people interpret infographics and how this affects their behavior is vital for solving social implications that may develop from new scientific challenges and technologies. Assistant professor Li and Ph.D. student Molder are both interested in how visual communications can be used to communicate science topics to non-expert audiences and plan to continue similar types of work.

Story by Brianna Van Matre, LSC B.S. ’20 and LSC M.S. ’22