Research Snapshot: Understanding COVID-19 risk perceptions to enhance risk communication

What you need to know 

Risk perception (i.e., how people view and react to risk) is complex and context-specific and is central to motivating behaviour change. By analyzing online communications associated with COVID-19 that were directed at Finland’s national health authority, researchers established a risk perception monitoring system that can inform risk communicators in real time. 


This Research Snapshot was written by Emma Firsten-Kaufman, based on the article, “Understanding coronavirus disease (COVID-19) risk perceptions among the public to enhance risk communication efforts: A practical approach for outbreaks, Finland, February 2020 ” which was published in Eurosurveillance in 2020. Read it below or download the PDF.

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What is this research about?

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, Finland’s national health authority began receiving comments and requests for information from the public that conveyed anxiety, misinformation, and distrust. In order to inform communications, researchers set out to explore the different ways that perceptions of risk were being expressed in these messages. They established a methodology for health authorities to ensure that members of the public would perceive their communications about risk as relevant, trustworthy, compassionate, culturally competent, and easy to understand. This paper shows the results of the researchers’ first three weeks of monitoring.

What did the researchers do?

Using rapid qualitative data collection methods and a personal risk perception framework (Rohrmann,  2008), the researchers analyzed themes found in emails and social media posts about COVID-19 that were directed at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, Finland’s national health authority. They sorted these themes into categories called “risk perception domains.” Their qualitative research process was developed in collaboration with a medical anthropologist and experts in public health risk communication.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found their methodology was useful for identifying concepts that can be used to inform risk communication to the public in real time. Here are examples of five risk perception domains that were identified and how they were used in risk communication:

  1. Catastrophic potential. People whose messages indicated that they felt the pandemic would get worse were likely to have heightened emotions and a lack of knowledge about the situation. In response, they require factual information, resources, and expressions of care and concern. Their emotions shouldn’t be downplayed.
  2. Probability of dying. Messages in this domain included perceptions that deaths were uncontrollable or the consequence of inaction by health authorities. Responses to the former category should emphasize facts and statistics about mortality. For the latter, responses should highlight the actions being taken by health authorities. 
  3. Reasons for exposure. In this domain, some messages expressed perceptions or concerns about exposure due to contact with people who are infected with COVID-19. These are best responded to by emphasizing hygiene protocols or proper etiquette for avoiding contracting the virus. Other messages in this domain expressed concerns or anxiety based on stigmatizing attitudes about exposure to foreign nationals or people coming from abroad. To respond to these concerns, generate empathy by sharing stories that humanize people impacted by the virus and emphasize facts about the global situation.  
  4. Beliefs about control over the situation. Messages in this domain indicated the feeling that individuals cannot control the current situation and that they need to rely on health authorities. Responses should emphasize what individuals can do to prevent spread of the virus, such as engaging in hand hygiene and physical distancing.
  5. Trust toward authorities. Responses to messages that convey perceptions that the information being provided by health authorities is unreliable should repeat factual information and explain it. Responses to messages that authorities are not acting responsibly or doing enough should emphasize actions being taken by the authorities.

How can you use this research?

This rapid qualitative methodology can be used to identify risk perceptions in other settings. For instance, people working for health organizations can use this research to inform their own responses to individuals expressing fear, misinformation, and distrust pertaining to COVID-19. The research can also be used to inform organizations’ broader strategic risk communication.

Limitations and next steps

The researchers caution against generalizing the findings of this study, as individuals who contact health authorities during an emergency may be experiencing more emotional distress than the general population. Because risk perceptions are specific to culture and context, the findings presented in this paper will not be as useful to researchers in other settings as the methodology presented.

Future research could focus on quantitative analysis of the same themes. For instance, researchers may wish to use surveys and scales to assess if risk perceptions and trust of authorities increase or decrease over time.

About the researchers

Anna-Leena Lohiniva, Jussi Sane, Katja Sibenberg, Taneli Puumalainen, Mika Salminen

Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, Helsinki, Finland


Coronavirus, COVID-19, outbreak, pandemic preparedness and response, risk

This Research Snapshot was written by Emma Firsten-Kaufman, based on the article, “Understanding coronavirus disease (COVID-19) risk perceptions among the public to enhance risk communication efforts: A practical approach for outbreaks, Finland, February 2020 ” which was published in Eurosurveillance in 2020. DOI: 10.2807/1560-7917.ES.2020.25.13.200031