What is it about?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals have been forced to balance conflicting needs. Stay-at-home guidelines help reduce the spread of the disease, but lockdowns also come at a cost: avoiding all possible risks can harm mental health and economic stability. To balance these needs, individuals should be mindful of actual local virus transmission risk. We found that subjective perceived risk of COVID-19 was not aligned with reality. However, subjective perceived risk closely predicted individuals' compliance with social distancing and other public health guidelines. We developed a fast and effective intervention to realign perceived risk with actual risk. In our intervention, participants imagined the possible negative outcomes of a risky decision (hosting a dinner party that infects guests with COVID-19). They also played a risk guessing game that taught them about the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in their local communities. Our two-part intervention successfully improved the accuracy of subjective perceived risk and reduced willingness to engage in risky activities, both immediately and after a 1-3 week delay.

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Why is it important?

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced an unprecedented public health crisis. Although stay-at-home orders initially helped to reduce the spread of disease, the public has grown tired of these restrictions and compliance has waned over time. Communicating information about local COVID-19 exposure risk is crucial for helping individuals make informed decisions about risky activities in daily life. Our choices should be tailored to the risk level within our communities, balancing public health and personal needs. Importantly, encouraging individuals to make safer choices has downstream consequences: better public awareness of risk could prevent superspreader events and reduce community transmission.

Perspectives

Importantly, we found that learning statistics about COVID-19 cases was not enough to realign perceived risk with actual risk. However, imagining a COVID-related scenario enhanced subsequent learning from statistics. We propose that pairing COVID statistics with contextualizing information, such as example scenarios, could enhance the efficacy of existing risk assessment tools and public health messages.

Alyssa Sinclair
Duke University

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This page is a summary of: Pairing facts with imagined consequences improves pandemic-related risk perception, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 2021, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2100970118.
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