Following their research linking individuals' political beliefs to their COVID-19 health behaviors, Department of Psychology Professor Ed Lemay and Distinguished University Professor Arie Kruglanski recently published a study in The Journal of Social Psychology that takes an even closer look at what contributes to people’s pandemic response.
In “The role of values in coping with health and economic threats of COVID-19,” Lemay, Kruglanski and fellow researchers from the University of Georgia, Florida Gulf Coast University, New York University Abu Dhabi, and the Netherlands’ University of Groningen—along with a large international team of collaborators—set out to determine whether people’s perceptions of COVID-19 threats are connected to their values, as well as their actions to combat COVID-19. They looked at PsyCorona survey data from March-July 2020 to do so, focusing on two threats posed by COVID-19 (a threat to one’s health vs. a threat to one’s economic situation) and two types of values (communal values vs. agentic values). Those that value communion prioritize relationships and the welfare of others, while those that value agency prioritize one’s standing in social hierarchies and personal achievement.
Using data collected across the globe, the researchers found that respondents who primarily saw COVID-19 as a threat to their health valued communion over agency, and that this had implications for other responses to the pandemic.
“Those who were focused on caring for others and maintaining good relationships with others were especially likely to enact behaviors to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 through social distancing or putting oneself in quarantine; more motivated to help other people suffering from the pandemic; and less prejudiced toward immigrants,” said Lemay.
Researchers included the latter survey question to test whether COVID-19 increases prejudice, as disease outbreaks tend to have this effect.
“When people are worried about disease they are especially likely to harbor prejudice toward immigrants because, according to prior research, immigrants can be viewed as potentially bringing germs with them into the country and taking scarce resources,” Lemay explained. “We found that this effect depended on people’s values, however.”
The researchers also tested respondents’ change in threat perception and values over time. They found that during the early months of the pandemic especially, some people perceived COVID-19 as a threat to one’s financial welfare; increasingly prioritizing agency over communion, being less concerned with the welfare of others, and being less concerned with protecting others’ welfare and engaging in behaviors to prevent transmission—a mindset with negative implications for controlling the pandemic.
It was also found that it is possible for someone to go from prioritizing communion to prioritizing agency if, for example, they suddenly lose their job, or new economic threats posed by new variants arise.
“Regarding Omicron, I wonder if people are less likely to view it as a threat to their physical welfare, given the emerging evidence suggesting that it produces less severe illness, which may make them less inclined to feel dependent on others and adopt communal values,” said Lemay. “Given how widespread the Omicron variant has become lately, and how it has created mass staffing shortages in many industries, I wonder if Omicron is being viewed as even more threatening to people’s economic welfare.”
Only time and additional research will tell. But as for Lemay’s next steps, his research focus concerns potential solutions: Ways that society might be able to get people to care more about others' well-being and thus improve responses to pandemics and other large-scale disasters.
“Prior research has shown that you can nudge people to change their values by, for instance, informing them that their values are discrepant from those held by people and groups they admire,” explained Lemay.“ Perhaps these interventions motivate people to care more for others’ welfare, thereby improving their willingness to take extra steps to control transmission and help others during this pandemic.”
Photo of volunteer delivering groceries to an elderly woman courtesy of Sladic via iStock.