Why Do Some People Think They're Invulnerable to COVID-19?

Research on risk-taking suggests an answer to why people ignore guidelines.

Posted Apr 04, 2020

Health advisories, whether in the current pandemic or more generally, are only effective if people regard themselves as being at risk. If they don’t, they’re likely to take actions that can harm themselves and others with whom they come into contact. The New York Times reports that in certain regions of the U.S., large numbers of individuals continue to go about their daily business of traveling long distances despite their states or cities issuing stay-at-home orders.

The idea that the virus can’t affect you is perhaps most prominent in young adults, based on the constant reporting that it’s older adults who are most at risk. This belief was epitomized when a spring break college student declared to a reporter, “If I get corona, I get corona.” Although he later apologized publicly for this statement, there were many other students who partied unreservedly on beaches in the U.S. and Mexico, only to test positive after their symptoms developed.

It doesn’t take being young to engage in this type of perceived invulnerability, but based on the well-known theory of former Tufts psychologist David Elkind, “adolescent egocentrism” is a phase that most people eventually outgrow. Moreover, perceived invulnerability doesn’t just apply to disease outbreaks. Consider the fact that deaths due to drinking and driving are highest among individuals 15 to 24 years of age, as reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With all the public health warnings, not to mention legal consequences, of driving under the influence, this risky behavior persists among what is clearly a vulnerable age group.

To gain an understanding of the causes of perceived invulnerability among adolescents and young adults, then, research on drinking and driving can provide some guidance. A 2018 article by University of Angers (France) psychologist Catherine Potard and colleagues specifically addressed this issue in an investigation of the relationship between attitudes and behavior in a sample of French young adults. The French authors based their work on what's called the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB), one of the most widely accepted approaches to understanding the relationship between health-related attitudes and behavior.

According to TPB, your behavior is most directly predicted by your behavioral intentions. Turning to another example, if you decide you need to eat a lower-sodium diet, then theoretically you will be more likely to actually do this. However, the theory goes on to note that your intentions themselves can be influenced by three sets of causes: your attitudes (e.g., you believe that sodium is bad for your health), your perception of what is normative (health experts warn against too much sodium), and lastly, whether you believe you can actually control yourself or not. It’s this last piece of the puzzle that can prove to be the stumbling block. You know salt is bad, other people tell you it's bad, but when faced with a pile of your favorite potato chips, you feel you just can’t resist the urge. All three factors need to line up, according to TPB, for you to push those tempting goodies away.

Potard and her coauthors believed that the TPB model lacks one key feature in order to explain more fully the phenomena of drinking and driving in young adults, and that has to do with the perception of risk, which is itself a function of adolescent egocentrism. In the words of the authors, “Perceived Invulnerability, an optimistic bias, is described as a personal fable of immunization against risks (cognitive bias) and usually identified as playing a role in adolescents’ risk-taking” (p. 39).

If you’re wondering what the “personal fable” means, this is another component of Elkind’s approach to understanding adolescent egocentrism. The personal fable refers to the narrative that young people construct of their lives in which they write themselves in as the heroes or heroines, and thus can’t be affected by the dangers that threaten ordinary mortals. This includes, according to Potard et al., the ability to drink and drive without suffering any getting into an accident.

The online sample in the French study consisted of 368 French drivers (71% female) with an average age of 23. Nearly one-third reported that they had engaged in drinking and driving in the past 12 months, with men reporting higher levels. A disturbingly high percent (over 2/3) believed that it was acceptable to drive after 1 or 2 drinks, and men had more permissive attitudes toward this behavior than did the female respondents. They were asked to complete a TPB measure consisting of items specifically geared toward driving and drinking (e.g., for behavioral intention, ‘‘I will drink and drive the next time that I am out at a party or bar with friends”).

To measure perceived invulnerability, the research team included questions again specifically designed for driving. The authors devised these three separate scales to capture what they call “three faces of invulnerability”:

Danger Invulnerability: I’m unlikely to be injured in an accident.

Interpersonal Invulnerability: The opinions of other people just don’t bother me.

Psychological Invulnerability: My feelings don’t get hurt.

Although this was a correlational study, the theoretical model adopted by Potard and her colleagues allowed them to test directionality as they traced the routes from attitudes to behavior. As the authors predicted, the intention to drive while under the influence was related to the TPB components of subjective norms, attitudes, and perceived control. Adding past behavior to the model further increased the predictability of who would drink and drive, but perceived control had the largest impact.

Moving on to the role of perceived invulnerability, scores on the psychological dimension proved to be predictive of the subjective norms component of TPB. In the words of the authors, “These people feel protected by an egocentric personal fable and perceive others as being favorable to road violations in accordance with their own behavior (p.44).” The Interpersonal Invulnerability dimension also played a role in behavioral intentions, suggesting that people who don’t care about what others think will engage in more risky behavior (think about the “If I get corona I get corona” statement). Finally, scores on Danger Invulnerability predicted risky behavioral intentions as well. As the authors noted, young adults who believe they are invulnerable engage in an “illusion of control” which allows them to downplay mentally whatever their actual risk may be.

Age may be one predictor of perception of invulnerability, but people of all ages who see themselves as “too healthy” to get sick, whether through the current pandemic or with regard to chronic diseases, need to have someone pop their bubble of illusory control. You can take action with the people you know who don’t follow health guidelines, whether young adult or not, by continuing to present them with the actual stories of actual people who suffered the consequences of thinking this can’t happen to them. A dose of any national news program may, in this regard, serve as one of the best inoculations available at the moment.

To sum up, everyone has, at one point in their lives or another, devised a personal fable. Introducing a note of reality into that fable may just be the best way to break into the myth of invulnerability.

Facebook image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

References

Potard, C., Kubiszewski, V., Camus, G., Courtois, R., & Gaymard, S. (2018). Driving under the influence of alcohol and perceived invulnerability among young adults: An extension of the theory of planned behavior. Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, 55, 38–46. doi: org.silk.library.umass.edu/10.1016/j.trf.2018.02.033