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When Private Optimism meets Public Despair: People adapt to threats like Covid-19 by maintaining positive and protective biases while reducing negative perceptions and emotions

By Maria Thomas, on 29 June 2020

This blog was written by PhD Student Laura K. Globig from the Department of Experimental Psychology, UCL. 

woman wearing face mask

Humans tend to be optimistic. They overestimate their financial prosperity and marriage longevity, while underestimating their risk of disease, such as cancer or suffering other hardships, like being burgled (Sharot, 2011, Weinstein, 1980).

What is surprising about such observations is that anecdotally, people also often express pessimism regarding the state of society as a whole. Following the financial collapse of 2008, polls showed that people were extremely pessimistic about the financial future of their country. By contrast, they were optimistic about their own financial prospects (Ipsos MORI, 2008).

Now these seemingly opposing but coexisting beliefs integrate to shape a person’s response becomes especially relevant when danger faces the self and others. How someone estimates their own vulnerability will likely affect their well-being and the choices they make. Simultaneously, someone’s predictions about the vulnerability of society at large could also affect their personal well-being and behavior. The latter is particularly pertinent, when one’s own behavior can affect others’ well-being.

As COVID-19 swept the globe and stay at home orders were issued we surveyed a representative sample of 1145 Americans in 30 states across two timepoints. Our aim was two-fold: 1) To investigate how people perceived the danger COVID-19 posed to themselves and to their fellow citizens. 2) To determine how these perceived risks influenced their own well-being and behavior.

We found that people believed they were at lower risk of getting COVID-19 relative to others their age and gender. We refer to this as private optimism. At the same time, people also believed that COVID-19 posed a tremendous danger to the health of the human population as whole. We refer to this as public pessimism.

We found that private optimism can be explained by people’s sense of control. People believe their fate is in their own hands, and thus they believe they can avoid negative outcomes (Zakay, 1984). During the pandemic, this may relate to people believing they are in control over being exposed to the virus. This then leads them to believe they are less likely than others to catch the virus. But because this sense of control does not extend to society, they are less optimistic about global issues. We cannot control how others behave during the pandemic.

Those who were optimistic about their own chances of being infected were also happier and less anxious compared to those who were not. How people estimated the danger posed by COVID-19 to society as a whole however did not influence personal happiness, but did affect anxiety. Those who were pessimistic about the danger to society, were more anxious. Thus, our perception of our own vulnerability can influence both positive and negative aspects of well-being, while how vulnerable we perceive others relates specifically to anxiety.

When it comes to slowing the spread of COVID-19, to what extent we adopt preventative measures, such as social distancing, not only mitigates our own risk of getting infected, but also that of others. It enables us to protect those who are particularly vulnerable.

Our study shows that public pessimism predicted how likely people were to adhere to public health advice to slow the spread. That is, people who believed the virus posed a great danger to society as a whole reported putting greater effort in social distancing, hand washing and avoiding touching their faces. How people considered the risk to the self, however, did not affect compliance. This suggests that people predominantly engage in protective behaviors for the benefit of others.

Finally, we also observed that people adapted well to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Their well-being increased as lockdown progressed. Compared to the start of lockdown, people were less anxious and reported an increased sense of control. They considered the danger of COVID-19 to humanity as less than they did at the beginning of lockdown. Private optimism and happiness remained stable throughout. This suggests that humans adapt to threats by maintaining positive and protective biases while reducing negative perceptions and emotions.

We surveyed Americans across 30 US states, thereby allowing us to sample a diverse representation of US citizens. Notably, we did not observe an effect of state or number of COVID-19 cases or COVID-19 related fatalities at the time of testing. It is therefore likely that our findings will also apply to other countries, such as the United Kingdom.

Rather than an effect of location, we did find that political orientation, age, gender and socioeconomic status had a differential effect on well-being and behavior. Older individuals and females were more like to comply with government advice related to COVID-19 mitigation. Moreover, those with high income were happier. Finally, males and republicans were more likely to express private and public optimism. Additionally, younger individuals were also more likely to express private optimism. Future research is needed to explore how government policies in response to COVID-19 influence well-being and behavior. There may well be differential effects on an international scale.

Given the recent decline in COVID-19 cases and easing restrictions, it is possible that risk perception in general will decrease, due to the actual risk of infection being reduced. Nevertheless, some preliminary data we collected indicates that people still consider the risk of getting infected themselves as low, relative to others of same age and gender. More work is needed to explore how this optimistic tendency relates to reports of an increasing number of people believing they have already contracted the virus and are thereby immune. As official statistics indicate the true percentage of the population that has actually tested positive for COVID-19 is still relatively small. Therefore, it is in fact possible that the belief to have had COVID-19 already is in itself, also a form of private optimism in which people falsely believe they are immune, and thereby no longer at risk of infection.

One might believe that private optimism may deter individuals from getting vaccinated against COVID-19 once a vaccine becomes available. However, vaccinations rely on the concept of herd immunity and thereby only work to prevent the spread of infectious diseases if the majority of the population is vaccinated. They could therefore be considered a form of behavioral compliance to protect those who are vulnerable and thus one’s willingness to get vaccinated likely relies more on how we estimate the danger to the human population. Of course, this relies on effective communication and education of the public.

There is reason to believe, that the paradoxical existence of private optimism and public pessimism generalizes to other threats such as war, financial collapse and climate change. For example, we speculate that people’s tendency to make “green choices” is linked to the belief that climate change poses a threat to humanity, regardless of whether they believe that they are themselves at risk. Such knowledge can be useful for advocates and policy makers in framing information to encourage individuals to select actions that protect themselves and others from natural and man-made threats. In the future we also hope to explore the mechanistic link between sense of control, private optimism and well-being further. If we can strengthen people’s sense of control, we might be able to harness the positive effects on personal well-being in times of crisis.

 

References

Globig, L. K., Blain, B., & Sharot, T. (2020, May 29). When Private Optimism meets Public Despair: Dissociable effects on behavior and well-being. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/gbdn8

Ipsos MORI. (2008). Political Monitor, March 2008, [UK]. [Data set].  Retrieved from: https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/ipsos-mori-political-monitor-march-2008

Sharot, T. (2011). The optimism bias. Current Biology, 21(23), R941–R945. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.030

Weinstein, N. D. (1980). Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(5), 806–820. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3514.39.5.806

Zakay, D. (1984). The Influence of Perceived Event’s Controllability on Its Subjective Occurrence Probability. The Psychological Record, 34(2), 233–240. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03394867

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