Correcting Misperceptions of Exponential Coronavirus Growth Increases Support for Social Distancing

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Jun 24;202006048. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2006048117. Online ahead of print.


The most effective way to stem the spread of a pandemic such as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is social distancing, but the introduction of such measures is hampered by the fact that a sizeable part of the population fails to see their need. Three studies conducted during the mass spreading of the virus in the United States toward the end of March 2020 show that this results partially from people's misperception of the virus's exponential growth in linear terms and that overcoming this bias increases support for social distancing. Study 1 shows that American participants mistakenly perceive the virus's exponential growth in linear terms (conservatives more so than liberals). Studies 2 and 3 show that instructing people to avoid the exponential growth bias significantly increases perceptions of the virus's growth and thereby increases support for social distancing. Together, these results show the importance of statistical literacy to recruit support for fighting pandemics such as the coronavirus.

Keywords: comparison; coronavirus; exponential growth bias; statistical literacy.