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Monday, March 23, 2020

Changes in risk perception and protective behavior during the first week of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States

T. Wise, T. Zbozinek, & others
Originally posted 19 March 20


By mid-March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic spread to over 100 countries and all 50 states in the US. Government efforts to minimize the spread of disease emphasized behavioral interventions, including raising awareness of the disease and encouraging protective behaviors such as social distancing and hand washing, and seeking medical attention if experiencing symptoms. However, it is unclear to what extent individuals are aware of the risks associated with the disease, how they are altering their behavior, factors which could influence the spread of the virus to vulnerable populations. We characterized risk perception and engagement in preventative measures in 1591 United States based individuals over the first week of the pandemic (March 11th-16th 2020) and examined the extent to which protective behaviors are predicted by individuals’ perception of risk. Over 5 days, subjects demonstrated growing awareness of the risk posed by the virus, and largely reported engaging in protective behaviors with increasing frequency. However, they underestimated their personal risk of infection relative to the average person in the country. We found that engagement in social distancing and hand washing was most strongly predicted by the perceived likelihood of personally being infected, rather than likelihood of transmission or severity of potential transmitted infections. However, substantial variability emerged among individuals, and using data-driven methods we found a subgroup of subjects who are largely disengaged, unaware, and not practicing protective behaviors. Our results have implications for our understanding of how risk perception and protective behaviors can facilitate early interventions during large-scale pandemics.

From the Discussion:

One explanation for our results is the optimism bias.  This bias is associated with the belief that we are less likely to acquire a disease than others, and has been shown across a variety of diseases including lung  cancer. Indeed,  those  who  show  the  optimism  bias  are  less  likely  to  be  vaccinated  against disease. Recent evidence suggests that this may also be the case for COVID-19 and could result in a failure to engage in behaviors that contribute to the spread this highly contagious disease.  Our results extend  on  these  findings  by  showing  that behavior  changes  over  the  first  week  of  the  COVID-19 pandemic such that as individuals perceive an increase in personal risk they increasingly engage in risk-prevention  behaviors.   Notably,  we  observed  rapid  increases  in  risk  perception  over  a  5-day  period, indicating that public health messages spread through government and the media can be effective in raising awareness of the risk.

The research is here.