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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Measuring Two Distinct Psychological Threats of COVID-19 and their Unique Impacts on Wellbeing and Adherence to Public Health Behaviors

Kachanoff, F., Bigman, Y., Kapsaskis, K., &
Gray, K.  (2020, April 2).


COVID-19 threatens lives, livelihoods, and civic institutions. Although public health initiatives (i.e., social distancing) help manage its impact, these initiatives can further sever our connections to people and institutions that affirm our identities. Three studies (N=1,195) validated a brief 10-item COVID-19 threat scale that assesses 1) realistic threats to physical or financial safety, and 2) symbolic threats to one’s sociocultural identity. Studies reveal that both realistic and symbolic threat predict higher anxiety and lower wellbeing, and demonstrate convergent validity with other measures of threat sensitivity. Importantly, the two kinds of threat diverge in their relationship to public health behaviors (e.g., social distancing): Realistic threat predicted greater self-reported compliance, whereas symbolic threat predicted less self-reported compliance to these social-disconnection initiatives. Symbolic threat also predicted using creative ways to affirm identity even in isolation. Our findings highlight how social psychological theory can be leveraged to understand and predict people’s behavior in pandemics.

From the General Discussion:

Symbolic and realistic threats also had significant yet different consequences for self-reported adherence to and support of public health initiatives essential to stopping the spread of the virus (i.e., social distancing, hand washing). People who perceived high levels of realistic threat to their (and their group’s) physical and financial security reported greater adherence and support for such practices. In direct contrast, people who perceived more symbolic threat to what it means to be an American, reported less support for and adherence to public health guidelines. However, if people do engage in social distancing, symbolic threat is positively associated with finding creative ways to enact and express their social (e.g., national) identity even in isolation.