Research reveals how people respond to government messaging about Covid

Monash University

Monash University

Government messaging can influence people’s attitudes towards leaving their homes, and how closely they adhere to rules during the pandemic, according to research by Monash University.

With much debate about the role of personal responsibility during the pandemic, particularly as lockdowns have lifted around the world, researchers from the Monash Cognition and Philosophy Lab tested what kinds of government messaging would promote the safest behaviour: simply asking people to follow instructions to stay home, or encouraging people to make their own decisions about the risk of various scenarios.

The findings were published in a paper, Risk perception, illusory superiority and personal responsibility during COVID-19: An experimental study of attitudes to staying home in the British Journal of Psychology.

To begin with, 1000 participants from the UK were presented with examples of everyday activities of varying infection risk and asked to decide whether it would be better to stay home, or if it was acceptable to go out.

Researchers found people were able to adjust their attitudes to going out according to the actual risk of infection of an activity, and people could accurately distinguish the risk level of different activities.

There were a number, however, that believed it was somewhat fine to go out when it is risky.

The study then systematically varied the instructions to participants and found that people become less cautious when they are invited to reason through the risk of an activity for themselves, compared to when they are simply asked to stay home.

Researchers said this indicated that during times when health authorities needed people to stay home, even for relatively low risk activities, communication should be more imperative, rather than focusing on personal responsibility.

“COVID-19 is a disease, but achieving compliance with public health measures is a behavioural, socioeconomic and ethical matter, calling for interdisciplinary approaches,” said lead researcher Simon van Baal, a PhD Candidate from Monash’s Cognition and Philosophy Lab.

The study also found most people think they self-isolate and stay home more than others.

Co-researcher, Professor Jakob Hohwy, said this shows people tend to have unrealistic beliefs about how much they comply with instructions to stay home.

“These findings speak to the social pressures and individual decisions we are all dealing with during the pandemic,” Professor Hohwy said.

“Social cohesion might suffer if we all think we are doing it harder than the next person, and health authorities should take these kinds of findings into account when they determine what kinds of messaging are optimal for different phases of the pandemic.”

The study also confirmed that younger people have more risky, permissive attitudes to going out than older age groups.

Men have a stronger tendency than women to believe it is acceptable to leave home during the pandemic.

The actual risk levels of the activity types were determined by co-authors on the study, Daniela Karanfilovska, infection prevention clinical nurse consultant at Alfred Health, and Professor Allen Cheng, a leading expert in infectious diseases epidemiology.

The study was conducted in collaboration with Dr Lukasz Walasek at University of Warwick, and supported by the Monash-Warwick Alliance.

An open access preprint version of this peer-reviewed paper can be found here:

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