person standing outside crowded elevator

Imagine the following: Two people walk into crowded elevators during the height of the pandemic – one with plans to help an elderly neighbor fix a tripped circuit breaker, the other to buy illicit drugs. The elevator breaks down for 20 minutes. Based only on this event, which of the two riders would you deem to be at higher risk for contracting COVID?

According to a new UCI-led study, readers will likely deem the person buying drugs to be at higher risk of contracting COVID than the occupant helping a neighbor when the exposure risk is the same for both riders. Risk assessments, researchers find, are sensitive to moral judgements. Similarly, unintentional COVID exposures – entering an unexpectedly crowded room - are judged as safer than intentional exposures, such as planning to attend a crowded event.

These findings, published in Collabra: Psychology, may help illuminate biases that can be used to improve public health and risk communication, say co-lead authors Cailin O’Connor, UCI logic & philosophy of science professor, and Daniel Relihan, UCI psychological science postdoctoral fellow.

“The COVID-19 pandemic created enormously difficult life and death decisions for individuals trying to balance the risks of the pandemic against the demands of everyday life,” the study authors point out. Complicating the matter was mixed messaging from some health organizations indicating that certain outdoor activities – such as going to a beach or playground – were riskier than indoor ones like grocery shopping and going to a doctor appointment. “These seemed to reflect wider judgements about whether an individual ought to engage in a behavior. So, it’s important to understand what drives decisions during a time like this, and to investigate the ways that these assessments might deviate from objective risk.”

To understand factors that impact COVID risk assessment, researchers developed an experimental survey with two sets of carefully designed vignettes illustrating potential exposure scenarios. The first set focused on moral judgement and importance by presenting a series of behaviors - being in a crowded bar, a public library, a busy grocery store, a stuck elevator, a dance club, working at a busy restaurant – with varying backstories as to why a person was in these places. Reasons ranged from morally “good” and “important” – like going to a busy grocery store to pick up an emergency inhaler for an asthmatic child - to morally “bad” and “unimportant” – like re-opening a busy restaurant to make more money for an online gambling problem. The second set homed in on intentionality with scenarios like walking into an apartment when a plumber is unexpectedly working on a problem vs scheduling a plumber to fix a problem while present.

More than 800 online participants took part in the experiment and judged risk on a scale of 1-10 for each vignette; 1 being safest/lowest risk, 10 being most dangerous/highest risk. Overall, participants ranked morally justified activities as safer while activities that might subject people to blame or culpability – scenarios deemed immoral or “bad” – were ranked as high risk, even when objective risk was fixed. Similarly, the more participants judged the actions as intentional, the more likely they thought the actions could lead to COVID-19 infection.  The authors emphasized that the study effects were small, but significant, and in line with previous findings in other domains.

“Our results suggest that individuals may be prone to underestimate the risks of behaviors that they consider highly morally laudatory, such as attending church or participating in a protest. If so, it may be worthwhile to create direct messaging about such behaviors, emphasizing their true riskiness,” say study authors. “At the same time, in communicating public health measures, it may be more effective to emphasize the moral virtues and benefits of such measures than to emphasize narrowly practical benefits such as minimizing one’s own risk of exposure or infection.”

They add: “For public health officials, it is clearly important that deceptive or misleading public health messaging may decrease public trust in science. So, it would be worthwhile for messaging to fall more in line with objective medical risks rather than moral judgements about behaviors.”

Additional authors include Ashley Thomas, assistant professor, Harvard psychology and ’18 UCI cognitive sciences Ph.D.; Peter Ditto, professor, UCI psychological science; and Kyle Stanford and James Weatherall, professors, UCI logic & philosophy of science.

Funding for this work was supported by the National Science Foundation under grant number 1922424.

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