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Can Optimistic Attitudes Motivate Protective Behaviour against COVID-19?

New SHARE Corona study investigates how threat perceptions and optimistic attitudes are associated with motivation to engage in protective behaviour in the population 50+ during the COVID-19 crisis

(July 2021) The COVID-19 pandemic forced people worldwide to adapt to constantly changing situations and regulations. Implemented control measures to reduce infection rates led to different economic, social and health-related side effects. Particularly older adults and other vulnerable groups are highly affected by pandemic consequences. To investigate how feelings and behaviours of people aged 50+ were influenced by the pandemic and how individuals differ in terms of their motivation to engage in nationally recommended protective behaviour, researchers Sand and Bristle from the Munich Center for the Economics of Aging (MEA) analysed data from the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE). The researchers focused on the role of fear of the virus as a concrete health threat and optimistic attitudes with regard to respondents’ intention to engage in protective behaviour. Although fear and optimism seem to be contradicting, Sand and Bristle find that both indicators are equally strong motivators for protective behaviour.

Analysing cross-national risk behaviour during the pandemic

Sand and Bristle focus their research on the relationship of individuals’ threat perception with regard to the perception of the severity of the virus, one´s vulnerability and feelings of fear as well as the capability to deal with the threat captured by statements expressing optimism and hope. The researchers analysed data from the first SHARE Corona Survey (Wave 8) and measured protective behaviour patterns of over 38,500 European citizens aged 50+ two to three months after the first lockdowns. By focusing on 25 European countries plus Israel, the study provides a cross-national perspective on different motivations to engage in nationally recommended protective behaviour. Data from the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker were included to gain information on the spread of the virus and governmental mitigation strategies.

Fear and optimism as main motivational factors for protective behaviour

In general, elderly people showed optimistic attitudes with over 80% reporting an optimistic outlook into the future. Nevertheless, more than one in five respondents reported to feel more anxious than before Corona. Feeling more anxious than before Corona and fear of infection are main motivators for showing protective behaviour and could be especially observed in countries with low COVID-19 mortality rates like Estonia, Finland or Latvia. Interestingly, an optimistic attitude towards the future shows an equally strong association with protective behaviour and is the main motivator in countries like France or Sweden. Those countries also show high levels of trust in their health care systems. Based on these findings it can be assumed that fear arousal and optimistic attitudes vary based on country-specific factors such as COVID-19 mortality and trust in health care system.

Around 15% of elderly European citizens stayed at home in the first months of the pandemic

Furthermore, the results show that in total around 15% of older Europeans stayed at home completely in the first months after the outbreak – particularly elderly, those with prior health risk conditions, and those living in countries with strict control measures. Especially people who can be perceived to be more vulnerable in terms of older age or health conditions were more likely to stay at home and protect themselves. Stay at home rates vary strongly by country. While at least 30% of respondents from Cyprus and Italy stayed at home completely during the first month after the outbreak of the pandemic, countries like Denmark, Sweden and Germany show low rates of around 5%. In total, individuals showed high engagement in recommended self-protective behaviours in compliance with governmental control strategies, even though infection rates and exposition risk were low in the summer months after the first wave.

Psychosometric paradigm and protection motivation hypothesis as theoretical explanations

According to the results, fear and optimism are the main drivers for protective behaviour, which seems to be contradicting in the first place, but can be explained by the so-called psychosometric paradigm and by Protection Motivation Theory. Perceiving the virus as a concrete health threat is therefore a main motivator for elderly and vulnerable people to engage in protective behaviour. Interestingly, this is equal for optimistic attitudes that can be seen as a proxy for individual coping strategies to deal with the threat. People who believe in the effectiveness of governmental and/or their own coping strategies might be more likely to protect themselves.

Sand and Bristle´s study on threat perception and protection provides a cross-country perspective on people’s short- and medium-term response to the COVID-19 threat and governmental control measures based on feelings and behaviour. Assessing the role of fear and optimistic attitudes can help to counterbalance fear as single motivational factor. According to Sand and Bristle, research in this area is of high importance to overcome “pandemic fatigue” and to maintain people’s compliance with protective measures.

Study by Gregor Sand and Johanna Bristle (2021). The Relationship of Threat Perceptions and Optimistic Attitude with Protective Behavior in the COVID-19 Crisis. SHARE Working Paper Series 64-2021 DOI: 10.17617/2.3309027


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