Risk perception, illusory superiority, and personal responsibility during COVID-19: An experimental study of attitudes to staying home

Here are some highlights from this new academic paper:

* there are prominent examples where communications regarding desired behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic largely fall into one of two classes: imperative messaging, and communication that invites personal responsibility and reasoning from the public. The communications that invoke personal responsibility are often part of a strategy to create or maintain civic engagement, whereas the imperative simplifies the task at hand, a strategy that appears to follow the (often criticised) deficit model. The deficit model homogenises the audience and communicates information that serves to fill a deficit in knowledge (Meyer, 2016). Such an approach is often not beneficial for civic engagement, but when risks are high and without ambiguity, instrumental discourse can work well (Renn, 2008). In contrast, communication that encourages civic engagement (or community engagement) can enhance the effectiveness of containment measures in public health emergencies (Renn, 2008, 2020), and increase the likelihood of cooperation by the public (Head, 2011).

* People have a general tendency to view their own actions more favourably, which is called self-serving bias (Mezulis et al., 2004), and to view themselves as better than average, illusory superiority (Zell et al., 2020). This could also be the case for pandemic response behaviour, such that people will falsely believe their physical distancing behaviour is more rigorous than that of others. This is potentially harmful because if people believe that they have acted morally (because they think they are comparatively rigorously physical distancing), they will be more likely to behave immorally later (Blanken et al., 2015), which could be a reason for suboptimal compliance. This counterintuitive behaviour pattern is called moral licensing.

* The imperative framing was more effective than the framing invoking personal responsibility at encouraging stringent attitudes to staying home in general, and particularly in low and minimal-risk scenarios.

* Understanding loophole reasoning is critical for COVID-19 because even a low number of people finding loopholes for themselves can have devastating effects (Donnarumma & Pezzulo, 2020). Illusory superiority may lead to moral licensing, and thus a self-loophole. That is, people may not a priori believe they are more justified in going out, but if they believe they have been morally ‘good’ by self-isolating rigorously, then they may be more likely to behave immorally and transgress (through moral licensing).

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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