Impact CanadaApplying BeSci
to the COVID-19 Response

Behavioural Science (BeSci) is a multidisciplinary approach to the study of human behaviour and decision-making, combining the findings and methods from psychology, neuroscience, and other social sciences.

maple leaf on a shield in front of a coronavirus


In March 2020, Impact Canada launched a program of applied research grounded in Behavioural Science (BeSci) to help support the Government’s response effort in accurately and effectively promoting the behaviours recommended by public health experts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in Canada. At that time, the behaviours that public health experts were urging Canadians to practice included staying home when sick and frequent hand washing. Now, over one year later, increasing uptake of COVID-19 vaccines and combating the rampant spread of misinformation are newer aspects of the continued response effort with deep - and increasingly complex - behavioural roots.

Throughout the evolving behavioural context of the pandemic, the objective of our research has remained the same: to integrate evidence-based, behaviourally-informed insights and recommendations to public communication materials, policy and programmatic considerations, and whole-of-government decision-making.

How are we doing this? A dynamic research architecture and growing team of applied experts are rigorously generating data and rapidly translating and disseminating insights to the policy response context. The architecture is built upon a suite of online and in-field data collection tools - including a comprehensive longitudinal tracking study that monitors public knowledge, risk perceptions, and behaviours in tandem with the progression of the pandemic. The team is deploying an array of research methodologies and analytical techniques, spanning from randomized controlled trials and growth curve modelling to semi-structured interviews and grounded theory analysis. Taken together, the tools and the team have amassed a deep and rich data set capturing how Canadians are experiencing the pandemic, including the factors the underscore - and interventions that can help drive - outcomes like compliance to protective behaviours and intentions to vaccinate against COVID-19.

This research and its application have been carried out in lockstep with Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and a vast network of additional partnerships that have contributed invaluable technical support and subject-matter expertise. Now we want to share our findings with you!

Next Steps

The following timeline provides an overview of the activities that have been carried out to date. Our BeSci, Policy, and Public Engagement teams continue to provide advisory support on priority COVID-19 policies, interventions, and communication campaigns to help maximize the accuracy and effectiveness of the federal pandemic response. Additional insights and full reports will be included as they become available.

table with medical supplies, such as stethoscope, syringe, pills and patient chart

November 22 - December 15, 2022

COSMO Wave 2.6

Wave 2.6 included new questions on the prevalence of and experiences with long-COVID. This wave also delved into the use of public health measures while sick and barriers to staying home while sick.

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cartoon of various people with speech bubbles

Oct 19, 2022

Misinformation and Disinformation: An international effort using behavioural science to tackle the spread of misinformation

An intergovernmental study suggests that behavioural science interventions can reduce intentions to share fake news headlines online.

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Physician checking the temperature of two girls

October 5-26, 2022

COSMO Wave 2.5

Wave 2.5 included new questions on the use of public health measures when sick with symptoms of COVID-19. This wave also delved into perspectives on future vaccination intervals and whether respondents consider themselves to be up-to-date on COVID-19 vaccinations.

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Close-up of someone getting vaccinated

August 3-26, 2022

COSMO Wave 2.4

Wave 2.4 asked respondents to self-report COVID-19 infections and experiences with long COVID. Questions also examined perceptions around new COVID-19 vaccines, reasons that respondents with two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine had not yet received a third dose and expectations for future waves of COVID-19.

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closeup of someone using hand sanitizer

June 1-24, 2022

COSMO Wave 2.3

Wave 2.3 included new questions on rapid test access and use, mask-wearing, and measures to improve indoor ventilation. This wave also delved into respondents’ personal risk assessments, the impacts of hypothetical scenarios with potential to boost vaccine uptake, and perceptions on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

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two children wearing black face masks

April 5-25, 2022

COSMO Wave 2.2

Wave 2.2 included new questions related to pediatric vaccination and booster dose intentions. News lines of inquiry related to social media usage, concerns about the spread of mis/disinformation online, and support for government intervention on mis/disinformation were also added.

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Four masked people standing in a line

Feb 3-25, 2022

COSMO Wave 2.1

Wave 2.1 focused on establishing a strong baseline understanding of Canadians’ current knowledge base, behaviours, perceptions and attitudes related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Rapid antigen test

Nov 16 - 22, 2021

COSMO Wave 16

COSMO Wave 16 included new questions about booster dose intentions, vaccines for children, and the use of rapid tests.

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family of four walking and holding hands

Oct 30 - Nov 15, 2021

Vaccine Study 7: Understanding Parent/Guardian intentions to have their child(ren) receive a COVID-19 vaccine

Survey data were collected from a sample of Canadian parents/guardians (N = 804) to better understand their perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes around COVID-19 vaccines.

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an emotional odometer with icons representing different emotions, from sad to happy

August 19 - October 4, 2021

Vaccine Study 6: Testing Principles of Operational Transparency to Bolster COVID-19 Vaccine Acceptance Among Unvaccinated Canadians

Vaccine Study 6 consisted of an online randomized control trial conducted in collaboration with academic experts from Harvard Business School. It tested the impact of operationally transparent communications approaches on COVID-19 vaccine intentions among a sample of approximately 1550 unvaccinated Canadians. Surveying a sample comprised only of unvaccinated individuals, this study also provided rich insights into intentions, attitudes, and self-reported behaviours of this population.

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smartphone with icons for social media

Aug 12 - 16, 2021

COSMO Wave 15

COSMO Wave 15 included new questions about second dose intentions and parental intentions to vaccinate their children. Wave 15 also featured a randomized-control trial designed to test whether or not respondents are willing to share false headlines related to COVID-19 on social media.

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coronavirus molecule surrounded by shapes and icons representing communications

July 2021

Behavioural Science Insights to Support COVID-19 Communications and Public Education Initiatives

Within the context of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, the Impact and Innovation Unit (IIU) has been executing a comprehensive program of research grounded in Behavioural Science (BeSci) to support the Government of Canada in driving the large-scale behaviour-change required to reduce the spread of the virus.

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hand on a window

June 23 - 29, 2021

COSMO Wave 14

COSMO Wave 14 included new questions related to Canada’s eventual ‘re-opening’, such as when respondents expect specific measures to be lifted, whether they anticipate day-to-day life will resemble pre-pandemic times in the near future, and their sentiments (e.g., optimism, anxiety) towards restrictions easing.

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man getting vaccinated

May 7 - July 14, 2021

Vaccine Study 5: Augmenting vaccination data among priority populations

Vaccine study 5 consisted of an online survey delivered to a broadly nationally representative sample of approximately 500 Canadians and oversampled approximately 800 Canadian respondents from specific ethnic, racial or Indigenous identities. The goal of the study was to assess knowledge, attitudes, beliefs and intentions associated with COVID-19 vaccination, especially among key populations for which segmented vaccination data is scarce.

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two people wearing masks

May 5 – 12, 2021

COSMO Wave 13

With a growing segment of respondents partially or fully immunized against COVID-19, COSMO Wave 13 included new questions related to vaccination experience, as well as perceptions of safe behaviours post-vaccination, and intentions to continue to adhere to public health measures.

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closeup of someone being vaccinated

Mar 17 – 23, 2021

COSMO Wave 12

COSMO Wave 12 included new questions related to vaccines, including a series of questions related to brand preference. In addition, based on findings from a series of academic literature reviews, several new scales were added that were found to be meaningful predictors of vaccine intentions and susceptibility to misinformation, including religiosity, numeracy, scientific knowledge, and psychological reactance.

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stack of newspapers

Mar 11 – 30, 2021

Vaccine Study 4: Messaging in Response to Adverse Events Following Immunization

Vaccine study 4 consisted of an online survey delivered to a broadly nationally representative sample of approximately 2,900 Canadians to explore perceptions of adverse events following immunization (AEFIs), and to proactively test the impact of various behaviourally-informed messaging and messenger strategies for responding to AEFIs, with the ultimate goal of maintaining public confidence in the safety of vaccines.

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band-aid on a vaccinated shoulder

Feb 9 – 16, 2021

COSMO Wave 11

COSMO Wave 11 included new questions on vaccine intentions, including whether respondents had already received a COVID-19 vaccine and what elements of the vaccine were most important to respondents (i.e., no side effects, most effective). Wave 11 also included new questions about Spring break travel intentions, interventions to reduce the risk of imported COVID-19 cases, and delved deeper into the spread of COVID-19 misinformation.

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patient discussing a vaccine with a healthcare professional

Jan 8 – 14, 2021

Vaccine Study 3: The Effects of Message Framing on Vaccination Intentions

Vaccine study 3 consisted of an online survey delivered to a broadly nationally representative sample of approximately 2,300 Canadians to assess the impact of various messaging frames on intentions to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

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man sitting against a wall

Dec 16 – 22, 2020

COSMO Wave 10

COSMO Wave 10 included additional questions on misinformation and disinformation, pandemic fatigue, holiday gatherings, and vaccinations.

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cartoon people in front of parliament

Dec 2020 – Mar 2021

New Impact Canada Behavioural Science Fellows join the Public Health Agency of Canada!

A new cohort of Impact Canada Fellows joined the Public Health Agency to apply and mainstream BeSci expertise and methodologies from different areas of the organization, including the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer (OCPHO), the Vaccine Confidence Policy, Research, and Engagement Team, and the Pandemic Preparedness and Response Division’s Public Health Measures Team.

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cartoon of scientists looking at charts

Dec 1st, 2020

How Vaccines are Developed Video

An animated video explaining how vaccines are developed and what factors helped get to a COVID-19 vaccine faster.

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Covid alert app icon on cell phone

Nov 2 - 9, 2020

COSMO Wave 9

COSMO Wave 9 included new questions on vaccine intentions, misinformation and disinformation, use of the COVID-19 Alert App, COVID-19 testing, and holiday gatherings.

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two women chatting with masks on

Oct 28 - Nov 1, 2020

Vaccine Study 2: The Effects of Messaging and Messengers on Vaccine Perceptions

Vaccine study 2 consisted of an online survey delivered to a broadly nationally representative sample of over 1,600 Canadians to assess the impact of various messaging approaches and messengers on Canadians' intentions to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

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hand holding a wine glass

Sep 15 - 20, 2020

COSMO Wave 8

COSMO Wave 8 focused on vaccine confidence and vaccine hesitancy along with a focus on the harms and risk associated with increased alcohol use.

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man thinking

Sep 4 - 6, 2020

Vaccine Study 1: The Effect of Different Vaccine Scenarios on Vaccine Perceptions

Vaccine study 1 consisted of an online survey delivered to a broadly nationally representative sample of approximately 800 Canadians intended to: identify drivers and barriers of intentions to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and begin preliminarily exploring whether certain message factors could result in greater intentions to be vaccinated.

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Emojis displaying different emotions about vaccines

Aug 13 - 17, 2020

COSMO Wave 7

COSMO wave 7 included an increased focus on Canadians' knowledge and attitudes related to vaccines, intentions to get an influenza shot in the fall/winter, and a look at the use of alcohol and other substances.

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Hand reaching for apples at a grocery store

Aug 12 - Sep 14, 2020

Applying Behavioural Science to Improve Safety While Shopping During COVID-19: Understand Phase Fieldwork with Frontline Grocery Workers

In partnership with a national grocery chain, Impact Canada launched a project to apply behavioural science to the experiences of shopping and working in grocery stores during the COVID 19 pandemic. Our aim was to 1) optimize existing or test new interventions to encourage key health and safety behaviours among employees and customers, and 2) identify opportunities for further innovation to improve the physical and mental health of customers and frontline employees. The project began with in-store Understand Phase research to identify key health and safety behaviours that would be valuable to target, explore the main barriers and drivers of these behaviours, and understand the diversity of employee and shopper experiences.

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man wearing a mask outside an office building

July 31 - Aug 11, 2020

Mask Wearing Study

An online survey among a broadly representative sample of 3,586 Canadians was used to gain insights into the barriers and drivers of mask-wearing and to test behaviourally-informed communications materials promoting proper mask use.

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empty seats on an airplane

July 17 - 22, 2020

COSMO Wave 6

COSMO Wave 6 had a continued focus on vaccine hesitancy, returning to “normal” behaviours, travel intentions, and pandemic fatigue, along with the reopening of the economy and its associated impacts.

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woman wearing a mask inside a maple leaf outline

July 7 - 10, 2020

COVID-19 Visual Design Concept Study

An online survey among a broadly nationally representative sample of approximately 1,200 Canadians was conducted to compare three different visual designs concepts in order to improve the effectiveness of federal COVID-19 social media and print communications.

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airplane from underneath

June 23 - 28, 2020

ArriveCAN Application Study

An online survey among a broadly nationally representative sample of approximately 2,400 Canadians to increase intentions to use the ArriveCAN app among travellers arriving into Canada, leveraging insights from the behavioural sciences.

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Open suitcase on floor and two hands holding hand sanitizer, a passport and medical masks.

June 23 - 28, 2020

COSMO Wave 5

COSMO Wave 5 included a continued focus on vaccine confidence, returning to "normal" behaviours, travel intentions, pandemic fatigue, along with the reopening of the economy and its associated impacts. Additional questions were added to better understand Canadians' perceptions of the process for border crossing, including intentions to cross, purpose of travel, preferred transportation modes and ports of entry, and perceptions of appropriate approaches and timelines for reopening CAN-USA and international borders.

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Family working from home at the dinner table

May 26 - June 1, 2020

COSMO Wave 4

COSMO Wave 4 included questions on how behaviours have shifted in balancing work and family priorities throughout this time of transition. Questions that focused on the experiences of small and medium business owners were also included in this wave.

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Young school girl holding a Canadian flag, wearing a medical mask and standing in front of two school buses.

May 5 - 10, 2020

COSMO Wave 3

COSMO Wave 3 included additional questions on when and how restriction measures should be relaxed, changes to existing behavioural routines during the pandemic, and degree of comfort with returning to somewhat normal routines and/or behaviours over time. Wave 3 also collected information on government benefit uptake (e.g. Canada Emergency Response Benefit, Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and Canada Emergency Business Account).

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Woman staring off into the distance

April 21 - 25, 2020

COSMO Wave 2

COSMO Wave 2 included questions that focused on perceptions about ongoing mental health and wellbeing challenges Canadians may be experiencing as a result of COVID-19, as well as the impact that the pandemic may have on socializing behaviours in the longer-term.

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group of masked people standing against a wall

April 11-15, 2020

COSMO Wave 1

COSMO Wave 1 focused on establishing a strong baseline understanding of Canadians’ COVID-19 knowledge base (e.g., symptoms, virus spread), perceptions and attitudes.

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heart in front of parliament

April 4 - 13, 2020

Federal Social Media Campaigns

Informed by behavioural science, two federal social media campaigns were developed to enhance nationwide physical distancing compliance and adherence to public health measures (e.g. limit grocery shopping to once per week, connect virtually).

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maple leaf with faces inside

April 2020 - ongoing

COVID-19 Snapshot Monitoring (COSMO)

Ongoing longitudinal study following >2,000 Canadians over the course of the pandemic to inform response efforts, including policy development, program interventions and communications strategies.

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covid on a world map

April 1st, 2020

COVID-19 Communications Rapid Review

In April 2020, Impact Canada conducted a rapid review to gain insights from historical epidemics and early, international COVID-19 communication strategies.

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