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

February 24, 2022

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied


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People have limited capacity to process and integrate multiple sources of information, so how do they integrate multiple contextual risk factors for Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infection? In June 2020, 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. Relative to experts, the public perceived lower risk associated with environmental factors (such as whether a gathering takes place indoors or outdoors) and were less inclined to treat risk factors as multiplicative. 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 infection risk competes with risk in another domain (e.g., a different medical risk), people perceive a lower likelihood of contracting the virus. These results inform the policy response to the pandemic and have implications for understanding differences between expert and lay perception of risk.