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Published September 2020 | Supplemental Material + Published
Journal Article Open

Changes in risk perception and self-reported protective behaviour during the first week of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States


Efforts to change behaviour are critical in minimizing the spread of highly transmissible pandemics such as COVID-19. However, it is unclear whether individuals are aware of disease risk and alter their behaviour early in the pandemic. We investigated risk perception and self-reported engagement in protective behaviours in 1591 United States-based individuals cross-sectionally and longitudinally over the first week of the pandemic. Subjects demonstrated growing awareness of risk and reported engaging in protective behaviours with increasing frequency but underestimated their risk of infection relative to the average person in the country. Social distancing and hand washing were most strongly predicted by the perceived probability of personally being infected. However, a subgroup of individuals perceived low risk and did not engage in these behaviours. Our results highlight the importance of risk perception in early interventions during large-scale pandemics.

Additional Information

© 2020 The Authors. Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited. Manuscript received 01/05/2020; Manuscript accepted 07/09/2020; Published online 16/09/2020. Ethics: The study was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the California Institute of Technology and subjects provided informed consent. Data accessibility: All analysis code was written in Python and is available along with data at https://github.com/tobywise/covid19-risk-perception. Authors' contributions: All authors designed the study. T.W. collected and analysed the data and drafted the manuscript. All authors critically revised the manuscript. We declare we have no competing interests. This work was supported by the US National Institute of Mental Health grant no. 2P50MH094258 and a Chen Institute Award (grant no. P2026052); Merkin Institute grant DM1.COV19R1 and Templeton Foundation grant TWCF0366 (both to D.M.). T.W. is supported by a Wellcome Trust Sir Henry Wellcome Fellowship (grant no. 206460/17/Z). T.D.Z. is supported by the National Science Foundation (grant no. 1911441).

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Published - rsos-200742.pdf

Supplemental Material - rsos200742_si_001.pdf


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