Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, governments and health authorities around the world have issued guidance to help people understand what precautions they should take to reduce their risk of spreading or catching the virus.
Reducing public risk to coronavirus is tricky but can be tackled on two fronts that are relevant to behavioural science. The first is that of encouraging the right behaviours so that people reduce their susceptibility to the virus. This approach has been adopted by the UK government and authorities in the form of the ‘Hands, Face, Space’ campaign – which encourages people to remember to wash their hands, use a face covering, and keep their distance from others. The American CDC has followed a similar strategy.
The second way to reduce public risk to coronavirus is to educate them on the relative risk of different situations. This means identifying which settings are particularly risky and highlighting them as contexts to avoid. For example, the Three C’s guidance, created in Japan and later adopted by WHO, emphasises that people are more likely to catch the virus in closed, crowded, close-contact settings – with the highest risk of all being in places which meet all three of these criteria (e.g. a nightclub). Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam has endorsed the Three Cs, and noted as two additional risk factors ‘duration’ (longer meetings = more risk) and ‘volume’ (louder meetings = more risk).
We know that people do reasonably well when quizzed on the general coronavirus rules in England. But, to date there has been little research on how well people understand the risk of specific settings. So, we tested this in an experiment with 4,769 UK adults – here are our three main findings.
1. People had a good sense of which activities were riskier than others
In the experiment, we showed people a selection of 15 short text descriptions of different scenarios, then asked how likely they thought it was that someone would catch or spread coronavirus in that situation. The graph below shows people’s responses. The ordering, we think, is pretty sensible – most people understand that nightclubs and pubs are much riskier than park walks and takeaways.
2. People’s perception of risk varied depending on what safety precautions were present
We next tested how people’s perceptions of risk changed with the presence of common coronavirus safety precautions. To do this, we showed people one of 16 different descriptions of a social meeting. These different versions varied whether the meeting was outdoors or indoors, whether it lasted 10 or 60 minutes, whether there were 2 or 10 people present, and whether the attendees wore masks or not. Then we asked how likely people thought it was that someone who had coronavirus would spread it to others in that situation.
The results are below. Once again, people had reasonably good intuitions; they rated a meeting of 2 masked people outdoors the least risky scenario, and indoor meetings of 10 unmasked people the most risky.
3. People overwhelmingly considered facemasks the most effective way to reduce transmission risk when meeting others.
Looking at these results more closely, we see that people overwhelmingly considered facemasks the most effective way to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. However, in our view, they underappreciated other ways of reducing risk – such as having shorter meetings, meeting in small groups, and meeting outdoors.
In summary, nearly a year into living with COVID-19, we found that people have a good and informed sense of which activities are relatively riskier than others, but there is something of a gap when it comes to fully understanding safety precautions beyond facemasks.