Most people suffer from “optimism bias,” where they greatly underestimate their personal risk of getting ill or developing a disease.
For example, in previous studies, researchers have shown smokers believe that they personally have less of a risk of developing lung cancer than other people who also smoke.
Such was the case in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic — most people felt they had less personal risk of getting the virus than other people.
But a new study suggests that perception may be changing, according to a recently published Caltech-led study.
As the season of the coronavirus has progressed, people have become more worried about their personal risk, and, as a result, have been increasing protective behaviors such as washing hands and social distancing.
“A little bit of anxiety is good in this case,” says Toby Wise, lead author of the new study appearing in the journal Royal Society Open Science. “It means that people will be more prudent. We found that an individual’s assessment of personal risk affected their behavior more than concerns about the safety of other people. Knowing this helps in the development of public health strategies.”
In the new study, “optimism bias” was seen at the start of the pandemic. The researchers monitored nearly 400 people via online questionnaires for a period of five days, beginning March 11, the official start of the pandemic according to the World Health Organization.
As the disease unfolded and its dangers became more apparent, the researchers noticed people began changing their personal risk assessments.
“The more people became aware of the risk to themselves, the more engaged they became in activities like hand washing and social distancing. In the context of a global pandemic, risk perception is highly susceptible to change,” said Wise.
The study can be accessed here.