Marcus W Mayorga
Decision Science Research Institute
Social Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE)
The sudden observation in Wuhan, China, in December, 2019, of humans infected with a new virus (officially 2019-nCoV virus and COVID-19 disease, publicly known as “the coronavirus”) provides yet another example of scientists and policymakers being surprised as a virus observed in animal and/or bird populations, or transmitted by mosquitoes, became infectious and damaging in humans (e.g., two coronaviruses: SARS 2002-2003, MERS 2012; recent major outbreaks of Ebola virus, 2014-2016, and Zika virus, 2015-2017). Understanding dynamics of public responses to such events under uncertainty is necessary to learn how to avoid either undue apathy or undue panic. This project explores how Americans’ views of and behavior towards the coronavirus change—or do not change—over 9 months. This will serve the national interest in progress in science by improving our understanding of how people’s beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors interact both within the same person over time, and between people with individual differences in attitudes at a given time. The research tests a novel model of how views of personal and collective solutions to what appears to be an emerging pandemic are affected by beliefs and attitudes, which builds upon prior work including the Protection Action Decision Model. The research also may improve public health and prosperity by revealing what factors are associated with particular reactions that may make public health protection easier or harder to implement. It thus affects whether quarantines, travel bans, and other policies meant to be protective hamper or amplify economic growth as well. The project also tests messages about false beliefs and flu vaccine efficacy that may inform public health risk communication and thus improve public health.A longitudinal study design surveys the same Americans five times at 2-month intervals, thus over 9 months total. Each wave of the project asks the same questions: perceived risk; emotional reactions to the virus; reported personal protective behavior and support for actual or potential government policies; and beliefs about those behaviors and policies; trust in government; subjective and objective knowledge about the virus; psychological distance from the virus; how much individuals are following news about the virus; and which types of traditional and social media sources they use and which outlets they use (e.g., different TV channels or different social media sites). Repeating these questions over time allows the research team to examine whether changes occur in these views and behaviors over time, or relations between factors over time (for example, do risk perceptions actually predict later protective behaviors). Certain other factors, such as culture, conspiracy thoughts, and blatant and subtle prejudice—are measured during one survey wave as a control. The survey is complemented by content analysis of mass and social media information from sources that respondents report using, so the researchers can test effects of that exposure on objective knowledge, risk perceptions, and behaviors. An information manipulation experiment embedded in the last survey will allow testing of whether vaccination intentions for the influenza (“flu”) virus can be increased in light of perceived threat from this coronavirus, and whether false beliefs about the coronavirus threat and management can be diminished in the short-term.This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.