Life is full of risks. Some are more likely than others, and some are more severe than others. Risk information may be acquired from direct experience or by observing someone else’s experience. But, more often information about various hazards is conveyed through other people. Friends and family warn us about the dangers of COVID-19 or we learn about them from MSNBC, CNN, or Fox.
Typically, when people perceive themselves to be in danger, they experience some degree of fear. This emotion is useful because it can motivate them to learn more about the problem or, perhaps, to take some action to protect themselves against it. That’s fine when there is a solution available, as would be the case if there were an effective vaccine available for COVID-19. When there isn’t a readily available solution, fear itself needs to be managed. In this post, I describe the emotion of fear, early research related to fear and COVID-19, and ways to manage fear during the pandemic.
What is Fear?
Theories of communication and risk identify two concepts that are useful to understanding how people evaluate potential dangers. One is severity. How harsh or painful or consequential is the danger to you? Another is susceptibility or the likelihood that the risk will impact you.
When people evaluate a risk as severe and likely, they usually experience some degree of the emotion that we call fear. This is not always thought of as a single feeling. Rather, the English language has several terms to describe varying degrees of fear. On the low end of the intensity continuum are “concern” and “worry.” At the high end, we have “dread” and “terror.” “Afraid” and “scared” occupy a space near the center of the continuum.
Fear is experienced as unpleasant, and people usually want to be rid of it. Perhaps the most effective way to do that is to perform some action that fixes the problem. If you are afraid of the dark, turn on a light. If you want to minimize your risk of gum disease, then brush your teeth. If you want to reduce your risk of contracting influenza, get the vaccine.
One immediate effect of fear is that it focuses attention on the threat. In previous research on the Zika virus, we found that fear motivated women to seek out information during the two weeks after we first measured fear of that virus. In other words, they monitored their social and media sources to stay up to date on Zika-related information. However, the amount of time they spent seeking information corresponded with higher levels of fear during the subsequent two weeks. The upside is that fear motivates people to stay informed. The downside is that staying informed maintains or increases levels of fear when what they learn is that the threat is continuing and there is no direct action that can be taken to address it.
How Intense is Fear of COVID-19?
The relationship between fear and risk of negative mental and physical health consequences is pretty straight forward. More intense or more frequent fear increases risk of, among other things, depression, anxiety, immune system suppression, and cardiovasular disease. How threatening is COVID-19? One quick and blunt answer is that, as of this writing, 238,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19. But these deaths are not evenly distributed across states, ethnicities, genders, or age groups. Accordingly, different groups of people estimate their risk differently and experience different degrees of fear.
In April 2020, Professors Chun Yang (Louisiana State University), Yan Huang (University of Houston), and I surveyed 758 U.S. residents of varying ethnicity, gender, age, and political orientation (manuscript under review). Overall, the levels of fear that they reported about COVID-19 were similar to those found in studies of war and terrorist attacks, as well as natural and man-made disasters. Neither age nor race were significant predictors of fear. But, women reported higher levels of fear than men. And fear was at higher levels for liberals than for conservatives.
Protecting One’s Self and Others
With COVID-19, there are behaviors such as physical distancing and masks that collectively reduce the risk of spreading the disease. But, so far, there is nothing as clear and certain as a vaccine. When people do not perceive themselves to be at risk, they are unlikely to experience any concern or fear and, therefore, unlikely to be interested in performing safety behaviors. From this vantage point, no action is needed because there is no risk.
For example, my Penn State colleagues – Professors Shannon Cruz, Lijiang Shen, and Rachel Smith – and I surveyed Penn State undergraduates about COVID-19 in September and October of this year. We asked them about the severity of the virus, if they were to get it, on a scale where 1 = Not bad at all and 7 = Very bad. Nearly 75% of them evaluated severity as a 1 or a 2 or a 3. Thus, most of them think that COVID won’t be much of a problem for them. When we asked them about how likely they are to get the disease, the answers ranged from 0% to 100% with an average of 40%. So, on average, they see their susceptibility as pretty nearly a coin flip. It appears that they don’t see themselves as being much at risk for COVID. They may or may not get the virus, but, from their perspective, it won’t be a big deal if they do.
In our undergraduate data, perceived susceptibility was negatively associated with performing safety behaviors, including masking and distancing. Undergrads seem to have concluded either that (a) they are already susceptible enough that these safety behaviors won’t matter or that (b) because they haven’t performed these safety behaviors, they are likely to acquire the disease. Neither interpretation is good news for containing the virus.
Until an effective vaccine is widely available, what can be done to manage fear? Research indicates that people are trying out many different methods. One of those is known as suppression, a strategy that involves tamping down, taking control of, or containing fear. This is counterproductive. Our research on Zika found a spiral of fear, such that people who tried to suppress their thoughts and fear about Zika had higher levels of fear than those who stayed away from this strategy. It is not recommended.
Another approach is to recalibrate perceived susceptibility to the disease. Research conducted by the Pew Foundation has observed that political conservatives view the coronavirus as much less of a threat to themselves and others than do liberals. This view aligns with the position of the president and with conservative media sources. As a strategy for reducing fear it has some real benefits: It feels better than being frightened and it presumably lessens the risk of decrements in mental health and cardiovascular disease. But, as the virus surges in North and South Dakota – two locations in which government officials downplayed the likelihood of the impact of COVID-19 – it may enhance the spread of the virus individually and collectively. This strategy comes with a serious warning label.
A third strategy for managing fear involves making conscious choices about one’s communication diet. Although there are substantial differences across media sources, most have a tendency to amplify perceptions of risk. For any given individual, the job is finding the right balance between risk-related information and that person’s tolerance for risk and fear. The same principle applies to interpersonal communication. Choosing whom to talk with, what to talk about, and for how long should take into account one’s own tolerance for fear as well as the other person’s tendency to evoke calm or fear. This approach has promise. But, because it involves multiple communication sources and a changing information environment, it requires planning and, possibly, regular updating.
All indications are that COVID will be with us for some time. And if not COVID, there will be other risks. Accurate assessment of risk should follow from science and, in particular, from the scientists who are working most closely with particular hazards that are most salient at any given time. Managing our emotional responses to COVID and other risks is a learnable skill that can bring about long-term health benefits.