Pairing facts with imagined consequences improves pandemic-related risk perception

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Aug 10;118(32):e2100970118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2100970118.


The COVID-19 pandemic reached staggering new peaks during a global resurgence more than a year after the crisis began. Although public health guidelines initially helped to slow the spread of disease, widespread pandemic fatigue and prolonged harm to financial stability and mental well-being contributed to this resurgence. In the late stage of the pandemic, it became clear that new interventions were needed to support long-term behavior change. Here, we examined subjective perceived risk about COVID-19 and the relationship between perceived risk and engagement in risky behaviors. In study 1 (n = 303), we found that subjective perceived risk was likely inaccurate but predicted compliance with public health guidelines. In study 2 (n = 735), we developed a multifaceted intervention designed to realign perceived risk with actual risk. Participants completed an episodic simulation task; we expected that imagining a COVID-related scenario would increase the salience of risk information and enhance behavior change. Immediately following the episodic simulation, participants completed a risk estimation task with individualized feedback about local viral prevalence. We found that information prediction error, a measure of surprise, drove beneficial change in perceived risk and willingness to engage in risky activities. Imagining a COVID-related scenario beforehand enhanced the effect of prediction error on learning. Importantly, our intervention produced lasting effects that persisted after a 1- to 3-wk delay. Overall, we describe a fast and feasible online intervention that effectively changed beliefs and intentions about risky behaviors.

Keywords: COVID-19; cognition; intervention; psychology; risk.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology*
  • COVID-19 / transmission*
  • COVID-19 / virology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Pandemics / prevention & control*
  • Perception / physiology
  • Public Health
  • Risk-Taking*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / pathogenicity
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Young Adult