Is it riskier to meet 100 people outdoors or 14 people indoors? Comparing public and expert perceptions of COVID-19 risk

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December 18, 2020
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How do people perceive and integrate multiple contextual risk factors for COVID-19 infection? We elicited risk perceptions from a nationally representative sample of the public (N = 800) using three psychologically-distinct tasks. Responses were compared to a sample of medical experts who completed the same tasks. The public underestimated the risk associated with environmental factors (such as whether a gathering takes place indoors or outdoors) and the implications when multiple risk factors are present. Our results are consistent with a heuristic simply to ‘avoid people’ and with a coarse (e.g. ‘safe or unsafe’) classification of social settings. A further task, completed only by the general public sample, generated novel evidence that when the risk of infection competes against a risk in another domain (e.g. a different medical risk), people perceive a lower likelihood of contracting the virus. The results have implications for public health communications and psychological theory.


View a summary of the working paper here.