Research Snapshot: Reactions to COVID-19

Reactions to COVID-19: Predictors of distress, avoidance, and disregard for social distancing

What you need to know

The presence or absence of anxiety affects in different ways how people behave during a pandemic. People’s beliefs also might have some influence. Researchers used an internet-based self-report survey to better understand the role that people’s beliefs about COVID-19 might have on their responses to the pandemic. The belief that COVID-19 is dangerous most strongly predicted distress in general and during self-isolation. Individuals who held this belief were more likely to excessively avoid going to grocery stores and other public places. The strongest factor that predicted a person’s disregard for social distancing guidelines was the belief that they were healthy enough to withstand COVID-19.

This Research Snapshot was based on the  article, “Reactions to COVID-19: Differential predictors of distress, avoidance, and disregard for social distancing,” published in Journal of Affective Disorders in 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.08.002

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What is this research about?

Research from previous epidemics and pandemics showed that anxiety, or the lack of anxiety, can affect how people behave. With too little anxiety about a viral outbreak, people are less likely to follow recommendations such as social distancing, handwashing, and vaccination. People experiencing too much anxiety might be more likely to panic buy or become housebound.

People’s beliefs can also have a strong influence. Canadian researchers conducted a study to better understand how people’s beliefs might cause over-responses and under-responses to the coronavirus 19 (COVID-19) pandemic. This is the first study to look at whether these types of beliefs might help predict a person’s response to the pandemic.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers used an internet-based survey to collect data in Canada and the United States from March 21 to April 1, 2020. The sample consisted of 6,854 adults 18 to 94 years old. The sample was representative of the population of these countries and met quotas based on age, sex, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and geographic region in each country.

The researchers measured over- and under-response beliefs using scales from the COVID Stress Scales. Over-response beliefs were measured through the person’s worries about how likely it is that COVID-19 would affect their personal health and socio-economic well-being and the belief that “foreigners are spreading the virus.”

The researchers measured under-response beliefs through the person’s beliefs that the threat of COVID-19 is exaggerated and beliefs that they are healthy enough to tolerate the effects of the virus.

What did the researchers find?

The belief that COVID-19 is dangerous was the strongest predictor of distress in general and during self-isolation. Individuals who held this belief were more likely to excessively avoid going to grocery stores and other public places. People who reported having had a mental health condition in the previous year were more likely to have general distress and distress during social isolation. The strongest factor that predicted a person’s disregard for social distancing guidelines was the belief that they were healthy enough to withstand COVID-19.

How can you use this research?

This study offers evidence that may help public health professionals and policymakers develop interventions to help people have more realistic beliefs about COVID-19. It may also help them develop strategies to encourage people to follow public health recommendations, in particular those related to hand washing and social distancing.

Limitations of the research

The researchers point out that their study had several limitations. For example, as a snapshot of a group of people’s beliefs at a specific time, it can’t determine how beliefs might change over time. It also focused on extreme forms of disregard for social distancing guidelines rather than moderate forms.

About the researchers

Steven Taylor,1 Caeleigh A. Landry,2 Michelle M. Paluszek,2 Gordon J.G. Asmundson2

  1. Department of Psychiatry, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC
  2. Department of Psychology, University of Regina, Regina, SK

Acknowledgements

This knowledge exchange activity is supported by Evidence Exchange Network (EENet), which is part of the Provincial System Support Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). EENet has been made possible through a financial contribution from the Ministry of Health (MOH). The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of either MOH or of CAMH.

While care has been taken in selecting and preparing the information included in this Research Snapshot, it is based on one research article. A comprehensive search was not completed to see if new evidence exists. As a result, the context behind the research, the terminology used, the research methods and the findings may not provide the full picture for this particular topic. Also, there might be a lag between when the study was conducted and when it was published, so it might not reflect the current evidence.  

Keywords

coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, distress, avoidance, distancing