We use a concepts and categories research perspective to explore how prior conceptual knowledge influences thinking about a novel disease, namely COVID-19. We collected measures of how similar people thought COVID-19 was to several existing concepts that may have served as other possible comparison points for the pandemic. We also collected participants' self-reported engagement in pandemic-related behaviors. We found that thinking the COVID-19 pandemic was similar to other serious disease outbreaks predicted greater social distancing and mask-wearing, whereas likening COVID-19 to the seasonal flu predicted engaging in significantly fewer of these behaviors. Thinking of COVID-19 as similar to zombie apocalypse scenarios or moments of major societal upheaval predicted stocking-up behaviors, but not disease mitigation behaviors. These early category comparisons influenced behaviors over a six-month span of longitudinal data collection. Our findings suggest that early conceptual comparisons track with emergent disease categories over time and influence the behaviors people engage in related to the disease. Our research illustrates how early concept formation influences behaviors over time, and suggests ways for public health experts to communicate with the public about emergent diseases.
Keywords: COVID-19; concepts; emergent disease; health behaviors; health decision-making.