"I'm More Immune Than You Are!"

Optimism bias and COVID-19.

Posted Jun 26, 2020

As COVID-19 cases rise to higher than ever levels in the U.S., and in many other parts of the world, it remains extremely important for people to continue to appreciate its risks. I'm not saying we all need to hide in our basements, but surely we could take some efforts to not spread a virus that can kill (not so fun fact: British houses don't have basements, so I couldn't even if I wanted to). 

Even if you are not in a high-risk group, such as having previous health conditions or being older, you don't want to hospitalize or kill others, right? Plus there is no guarantee it won't kill or hospitalize you. (Though data suggests that it probably won't.)

Feeling better?

There is a ton of research showing that people tend to have unrealistic optimism in general, and specifically in relation to health. People underestimate how likely they are to be diagnosed with diseases, and even when they are, they tend to underestimate the negative consequences. This is true both in the objective sense (actual risk vs. perceived risk) and in relation to others (your perceived risk vs. your view of others' risk). While this can be maladaptive, it can also have positive effects by motivating people to continue fighting an illness. That's difficult to do if all hope is lost.

Some colleagues and I recently completed a study testing this optimism bias in relation to COVID-19. We asked roughly 900 Americans from across the country a bunch of questions testing their perceived risk and health behaviours in relation to COVID-19. The results indicated four things in relation to this bias:

  1. People tended to think they were less likely to get the virus compared to the average person, and compared to people with similar attributes (e.g., same physical health, same social distancing and hand-washing/sanitizing tendencies, same age, same town).
  2. People tended to think they would be less likely to die if they got the virus, again compared to the average person and similar others.
  3. People tended to think they would be more likely than others to "know" if they had the virus, even if they were asymptomatic and had not been tested.
  4. For all of the above factors, this was the case—though to a lesser extent—even for people who have underlying health conditions.

In general, this optimism was related to less hand-washing, less social distancing, and less mask-wearing (though this is often a tricky relationship in past research because risk can motivate behaviour, but that very behaviour can then minimize risk).

It's quite astonishing, really, that people can be so prone to such unrealistic optimism. In the case of COVID, this seems to have some pretty serious, negative consequences. It could be leading even some high-risk individuals to ignore health precautions.


Manuscript in preparation.