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Researchers examine impact of digital information on COVID-19 behavior

(© Fabian –

With the COVID-19 pandemic now a regular part of daily life, are people changing their COVID-related risk perceptions, preferences, and behaviors?

For example, are they less or more willing to travel by airplane, eat in a dine-in restaurant, shake hands with a friend, or work in a shared office space?

And are those decisions influenced by the amount and quality of pandemic-related digital information they consume? Two faculty in the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs, Associate Professor Shalini Misra and Professor Kris Wernstedt, are asking these questions and more as part of a new research study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Misra and Wernstedt have received a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant from the NSF to conduct a survey among 400 respondents in five metropolitan areas in the United States — Washington, D.C.; New York; Chicago; Houston; and Atlanta — that will track differences in risk perceptions, preferences, and self-reported behaviors within each area and compare them across locations. The study commenced in April, and data will be collected at multiple time points during the remainder of 2020 and through the middle of 2021.

“We are interested in learning how people differ in their willingness to undertake certain behaviors, whether these beliefs and attitudes are changing over time from the onset of the pandemic in mid-March, and how people in different cities across the country may differ in their attitudes,” Misra said. “What do people believe the risk of being infected by COVID-19 is should they undertake the behavior at the present time? And, how low would the risk would have to be for them to feel comfortable undertaking the behavior if they’re not comfortable doing it now?”

Of particular interest to the researchers is how hypothetical contexts affect an individual’s decision-making process. “For example, we will present different possibilities about how long it might take to develop a vaccine against COVID-19 and how certain it is that the vaccine will be developed in that amount of time,” said Wernstedt.

Another goal of the study is to determine how risk preferences and behavioral intentions could be influenced by just how much, and the quality of, pandemic-related digital information people consume. As large numbers of people have had to cut off spatial ties and limit their mobility, they rely almost exclusively on digital information and communication, which can shape how people understand the pandemic and its consequences – that in turn influences their risk perceptions and behaviors.

“The information people get varies in quality, credibility, and timeliness, so we want to examine the nature of this information and determine its influence on COVID 19-related decision-making over an extended period of time,” Wernstedt said.

Fanglan Chen, working simultaneously on a Ph.D. in computer science at the Discovery Analytics Center and a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, served as a graduate assistant on this project during summer 2020. Chen has already earned a certificate in the NSF-sponsored multidisciplinary UrbComp program.

Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grants are awarded by the National Science Foundation to study the impact of federal investments in science and technology programs and to advance the scientific understanding of science policy.

“The completed study will broaden the literature on decision-making under uncertainty to accommodate spatial distancing resulting from public policies that severely limit face-to-face interaction,” said Misra. “We believe it will also help public officials develop better strategies — including shaping the content and timeliness of online and offline communication — to respond more effectively to future large-scale crises that also may impose restrictions on the day-to-day, face-to-face human interactions that comprise the norm for modern society.”

Story by Barbara Micale