Hits and misses: digital contact tracing in a pandemic

Maryanne Garry, Rachel Zajac, Lorraine Hope, Marcel Salathé, Linda Levine, Thomas A. Merritt

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Traditional contact tracing is one of the most powerful weapons people have in the battle against a pandemic, especially when vaccines do not yet exist or do not afford complete protection from infection. But the effectiveness of contact tracing hinges on its ability to find infected people quickly and obtain accurate information from them. Therefore, contact tracing inherits the challenges associated with the fallibilities of memory. Against this backdrop, digital contact tracing is the “dream scenario”—an unobtrusive, vigilant, and accurate recorder of danger that should outperform manual contact tracing on every dimension. There is reason to celebrate the success of digital contact tracing. Indeed, epidemiologists report that digital contact tracing probably reduced the incidence of COVID-19 cases by at least 25% in many countries, a feat that would have been hard to match with its manual counterpart. Yet there is also reason to speculate that digital contact tracing delivered on only a fraction of its potential because it almost completely ignored the relevant psychological science. We discuss the strengths and weaknesses of digital contact tracing, its hits and misses in the COVID-19 pandemic, and its need to be integrated with the science of human behavior.
Original languageEnglish
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Early online date30 Jun 2023
Publication statusEarly online - 30 Jun 2023


  • application
  • health
  • Policy
  • cognition
  • contact tracing
  • COVID-19
  • digital contact tracing
  • epidemiology
  • memory

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