A Public Commitment is the promise to engage in a specific action that a person makes in front of others. There is strong evidence that Public Commitments are effective at changing hygiene behaviours. Public Commitments do not have to be verbal; they can also be made using publicly displayed symbols.
The working principles of a Public Commitment are two-fold. First, a public commitment changes a person’s self-perception. After committing to a behaviour (such as handwashing with soap), the person starts to see themself as, e.g. a ‘handwasher’. To be consistent with this self-perception the person performs the behaviour more frequently and, having committed to do so in front of other people, they want to appear consistent. Secondly, witnessing Public Commitments prompts others to act. If a person observes many people publicly committing to a specific behaviour it helps to influence their perception of the Social Norms B.6 linked to the behaviour; it may prompt the observer to also carry out the behaviour. Public Commitments can be made quickly and for a broad range of behaviours. However, the action has to be feasible (e.g. handwashing facilities must be available and accessible, P.2). Depending on the context, an appropriate communication channel (e.g. village meeting, Household Visit T.18, Social Media T.44 or radio show) and commitment ritual (e.g. public verbal pledge, installation of flags or wearing of branded t-shirts) will need to be assessed and agreed upon.
Public Commitments are appropriate in most contexts and phases but are unlikely to be a priority in the initial phase of an emergency. The necessary human resources, equipment and time for implementation depend on the selected communication channel and commitment ritual.
Organise Public Commitment rituals and prompt participants to commit in front of others to make the effect more powerful
Tailor commitment rituals to the preferences of the target population, context and locally available material and pre-test them with a smaller group
Anticipate potential problems during verbal commitment rituals, e.g. opinion leaders who might oppose the commitment
Do not sanction or fine individuals who do not adhere to their commitment
Do not choose commitment rituals that have low public visibility
Do not choose commitment rituals associated with political parties or sub-groups, as this may limit their reach and create social tensions
As part of a COVID-19 prevention intervention in a refugee camp in Zimbabwe, participants were informed of the benefits of maintaining physical distance and told that leaders approved of this practice. Participants were asked if they would like to commit to this behaviour also. If they made the Public Commitment, they received a branded face mask with a slogan. By wearing the mask, they made their commitment to physical distancing visible to others and they could see who else had made the commitment.
Eawag, Helvetas, SDC (2016): Catalogue of Behavior Change Techniques (BCTs) Version 1.0
UNHCR, World Vison, RANAS, SDC (2021): Designing a Theory and Evidence-based COVID-19 Prevention Programme that is Feasible within a Refugee Camp, COVID-19 Hygiene Hub
Contzen, N., Inauen, J. (2015): Social-Cognitive Factors Mediating Intervention Effects on Handwashing: A Longitudinal Study, Journal of Behavioral Medicine 38. Pages 956-969