Reactions to COVID-19: Differential Predictors of Distress, Avoidance, and Disregard for Social Distancing

Authored By: Steven Taylor, Caeleigh A. Landry, Michelle M. Paluszek, and Gordon J. G. Asmundson

Individuals’ beliefs about COVID-19 fall on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, people may display excessive fear responses (i.e., over-responses). Equally important, and existing on the other end of the spectrum, individuals may downplay the significance of COVID-19 (i.e., under-responses). Over-responses to COVID-19 may result in avoidance behaviours (e.g., avoiding leaving the house), while under-responses may be associated with disregard for physical distancing and hygiene guidelines (e.g., not wearing a mask). The goal of this study was to examine predictors of these over- and under-responses.

Participants were 6,854 American and Canadian adults who completed an online survey containing questions about distress, avoidance, physical distancing, and beliefs about the COVID-19 pandemic. The results indicated that different beliefs about COVID-19 are associated with different emotional and behavioural responses, such as over- and under-responses. People who believe that COVID-19 is dangerous generally felt more distressed and were more likely to avoid situations even when it probably was not necessary—such as going to the grocery store. On the other hand, people who believed that COVID-19 is not dangerous were more likely to ignore physical distancing recommendations.

The results of this study show that understanding people’s beliefs about COVID-19 is important for understanding their emotional and behavioural reactions. Healthcare providers and governments should develop programs aimed at changing peoples’ beliefs about the dangerousness of COVID-19 in order to reduce problematic emotional reactions (e.g., distress) and behavioural reactions (e.g., disregard for physical distancing guidelines).

Lay Summary written by Kelsey D. Vig. Edited by Geoffrey S. Rachor

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