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Cave Syndrome: Shifting Mindsets with Facts, Credibility and Emotion

David Dunstan
7 May 2021
Cave Syndrome: Shifting Mindsets with Facts, Credibility and Emotion

Easing of restrictions is welcomed news for arts, culture and heritage spaces. But will cave syndrome put a halt to audiences returning? We’ve got the top three things you need to do to change behaviours and help audiences feel comfortable about returning.Your blog post content here…

Lots has changed over this last year. We’ve all had to adjust our behaviours: from mask wearing, remote working and social distancing and so much more. But as difficult as the last year has been, the vaccine has provided a ray of hope that normality would return - albeit slowly. 

And it has. In Ireland and the UK there are paths in place for reopening (though these are subject to change) that seems clear and - hallelujah - with tentative dates. And I know we’ve been down this road before - but we didn’t have the vaccine then and now we do, so it certainly seems like this time it will stick. 

Our Resilience summit also gave some comfort (and great tips, ideas and inspiration) on reopening and planning. But one data point in particular that stuck with me was that vaccinated people are not as confident about returning to cultural spaces even after they have been fully vaccinated. In a way this makes sense of course, the studies were conducted with the first cohort to be vaccinated - the older and more vulnerable population. It is completely understandable that they might be wary of returning to normality when the statistics have shown their age group to be the most at risk. 

But what about younger age groups? The data shows that they are certainly more likely to return. But if the last year has taught us anything - it is to expect the unexpected. Anxiety about a return to normal is a real issue - and there is even a name for it: Cave Syndrome. 

After a year in isolation, many people who have developed an intimate understanding of what it means to socially isolate are afraid to return to their former lives despite being fully vaccinated. There is even a name for their experience: the clinical sounding “cave syndrome.”


Emerging into the light after a year locked inside is proving to be a difficult transition for some people.

Pandemic related changes have caused a lot of fear and anxiety in people about returning to in-person activities. But there are some three concrete ways you can help your audiences help shift mindsets and feel comfortable about returning. 

First, it is important to note that shifting behaviours and mindsets is a complex area - long studied by psychologists. But there are some great practical tips and ideas you can use to help your audiences feel comfortable about returning. The three key areas are Facts+Credibility+Emotion. 


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The first and most important area to hit on when thinking about shifting mindsets are the facts. Without facts, it is impossible for your audiences to make a decision about returning. What this means for your arts organisation is:

  1. Clearly outline the changes you have made to your theatre or cultural space. This means any physical changes (filer systems, fogging systems, hand sanitiser stations etc.) as well as any behaviour changes of staff (mask wearing, perspex dividers etc.

  2. Clearly outline any changes that are to be expected of audiences. For example, if there will be one way systems in place or only sit down food and drink service.

  3. Use direct, simple language about these changes. Be sure these changes are easy to find on your website or as part of your marketing emails.

  4. Explain clearly why these measures have been put in place.

  5. Use all your marketing channels to communicate these changes so people know what to expect. Short explainer videos are a great tool to get these messages across in a friendly way. 

  6. Once people do book, take advantage of Ticketsolve’s automated email workflows to send a follow up email to bookers with all of these facts and changes.

Facts and information are vitally important to help audiences understand what to expect when they return. No doubt you have likely been communicating covid related changes to your patrons already. But persuading people that it is safe to return takes more than just facts. They need to hear it from a credible source. 


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When it comes to shifting behaviours, a credible communicator is critical. People need to feel that the person communicating the message is a credible and trustworthy source. There are a few key criteria for a credible source:

  1. The person communicating is like me. 

  2. They are knowledgeable about the subject.

  3. How they present the message or information.

  4. They are not just focused on the positives, they truthfully explain any downsides. 

So what does this mean practically when it comes to messaging around returning?

  1. Segment your audiences so that you can create messages that are very targeted. 

  2. Use your brand’s authentic voice. Corporate speak is fine in some instances, but in this case it is good to connect with your audiences in a way that helps them see you as part of their community and like them. 

  3. Use their name in any email communications. If you use Ticketsolve you’ll be able to do this easily. 

  4. Be honest about potential problems. With all the planning in the world, things may go pear shaped when you reopen. Explaining clearly what measures you organisation has taken to protect audiences and staff is important, but be sure to also communicate to patrons that you will take any learnings from reopening and improve the experience for them. Welcome feedback.

  5. Note the sources you used to create the changes. Linking or explaining that your measures are a direct result of government guidelines is a good way to gain credibility. 

  6. Other ways of demonstrating credibility is to show that your organisation isn’t alone. Check in with nearby theatres to see what measures they are putting in place. The Arts Working Group, Arts Council England, etc. are other great credible sources that can be noted in communications. 

What’s good is that most people will already see your organisation as credible, so just a few tweaks to your messaging will help. The last piece of the puzzle is emotion. 



Facts plus credibility will get you incredibly far when it comes to shifting attitudes. But emotion is the key piece here. Emotion is what can really engage and get people thinking differently. The best way to engage your audiences on an emotional level? Stories. 

According to the Narrative Paradigm (W. Fisher 1987), humans are “homo narrans”—storytelling animals who are persuaded to make decisions based on the coherence and fidelity of stories. Their effectiveness as a form of communication seems to be related to how the human brain processes, imposes structure on, and interprets, information.

What does this mean for helping arts, culture and heritage audiences return?

  1. Share your stories. Share stories from your staff, actors etc. from the last year. Funny, uplifting - any stories that help connect audiences with you. 

  2. Have videos? Use them! Share videos or clips from previous shows with full audiences. There are some great easy to use video editing software (like Canva) you can use to create short clips for social media. These are great ways to remind audiences why they love the arts. 

  3. Don’t be afraid to use emotional language in communications. You audiences are on your side - that is one of the benefits of working in the arts! Especially now as reopening approaches, using more emotional language can help you connect and entice your audiences back.

Are these ideas foolproof? No, but they may help some people feel more comfortable about returning to arts, culture and heritage spaces. 

Cave syndrome falls on a spectrum with some people feeling incredibly anxious and others very little. If you or someone you know is experiencing heightened levels of anxiety, fear or social isolation below are some links to support services that can help. 


Northern Ireland
NI Direct

Time to Change

Wales Gov
Time to Change Wales

Breathing Space
Support Mind
Think Positive

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