BOULDER, Colo. — Will the viral merry-go-round that’s been spinning the world since 2020 ever stop? While the COVID-19 pandemic has shown some signs of slowing down, a new viral problem has emerged just in time to complicate another holiday season. A “triple disease” of respiratory viruses consisting of COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza has surged in many parts of the country.
With the presence of not one, not two, but three viral risk factors this holiday season, many Americans are faced with a difficult choice. Should you attend Thanksgiving when you wake up with a cold, or should your child go to school despite coughing the night before?
Imagine a friend calls and says they’ve just tested positive for COVID-19 – should you go back to wearing a mask in public in the next few days?
Questions like these can be anxious and stressful, but researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder report that in most cases, just a moment or two of honest self-reflection can lead you to the right decision. Simply taking a moment to consider the consequences of one’s actions usually leads to choosing an option that poses fewer risks to other people.
Notably, this project also reports that people value the health and well-being of others almost everywhere. 13,000 participants took part in the study.
“Most people strive to behave in ways that consider the best interests of others, but right now, they’re often behaving more selfishly than they would like,” says lead study author Leaf Van Boven, professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder, in a university release. “Our lab is trying to find ways to help people better align their current behavior with their values.”
Most people think of others when it comes to illness
Study authors conducted this project at the height of the pandemic. Prof. Van Boven and collaborators in London, Austria, Singapore, Israel, Italy and Sweden presented three different hypothetical scenarios to volunteers living in all these countries and the USA:
- They owned a small restaurant and considered reducing capacity as the virus grew.
- They were planning to get together with 50 friends for a birthday party for the first time after months of isolation, but the local government recently announced that COVID cases are rising again and gatherings of more than 10 people are not a good idea.
- They debated whether or not to cancel a planned Thanksgiving celebration with 30 family members, which would include both older adults and young children.
Before a decision was made regarding any of these hypothetical scenarios, half of the study participants were asked to stop and practice a technique called “structured reflection,” developed by Van Boven’s lab. This technique is about helping people become more aware of their own values.
The participants had to ask themselves two big questions: How does my decision affect me personally? Will my decision also affect public health? For example, for the Thanksgiving scenario, they asked, “How much (on a scale of 1 to 7) should your decision be influenced by the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading among family members?” and “How much should that affect your decision , how satisfied are you with spending time with family members?”
One important observation remained the same across all countries, cultures, age groups and political parties considered. Almost all people place at least as much importance on the well-being of others.
“This is encouraging,” adds Prof. Van Boven. “Our study and others suggest that there is a universal human tendency for people to believe they should care about how their behavior affects other people.”
Personal responsibility at the heart of the post-COVID era
Participants assigned to the structured reflection group were significantly more likely to say they were likely to cancel Thanksgiving. Similarly, in other scenarios, they erred more on the side of caution and minimizing public health risks. According to Prof. Van Boven, these techniques can help countless people make more responsible public health decisions when faced with a choice between two options.
“People know they shouldn’t text while driving, that it’s better for the planet if they take the bus instead of driving, that they should eat more vegetables and exercise, but knowing is only the first step step,” notes Prof. Van Boven.
Typical public health campaigns are usually aimed at changing people’s minds, but Prof Van Boven believes this work illustrates a different way of promoting responsible public health behavior – helping people be their best Becoming themselves and taking what they already know is the right and more responsible choice. As COVID-19 restrictions continue to fade around the world, Prof. Van Boven says personal responsibility will become increasingly important.
“I would encourage everyone to make a habit of asking themselves when considering a large social gathering: what risk might you be putting on other people, and is the benefit of the gathering worth the risk?”
The study was published in PNAS Nexus.