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Fear

General Risk Aversion Explains COVID-19 Fear

Risk assessments of COVID-19 have to do with the way we assess risk in general.

Key points

  • A study found that people's general risk tolerance is more predictive of COVID-19 fear than other factors, such as age or health status.
  • Research shows that there is a tenuous connection between the amount of COVID-19 fear in a given country versus its number of confirmed cases.
  • Understanding the mechanisms behind COVID-19 fear can help inform treatment strategies.
Amin Moshrefi / Unsplash
Source: Amin Moshrefi / Unsplash

A new article appearing in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders attempts to make sense of the psychological factors that are most important in shaping people's fear of COVID-19. The researchers, led by Philip Millroth of Uppsala University in Sweden, found that people's general levels of risk tolerance are more predictive of COVID-19 fear than other factors such as age and health status.

“A pandemic such as COVID-19 can have diverse effects on people’s mental health, including anxiety and fear responses,” say the researchers. “In order to provide case-specific treatments, it is important to identify robust factors that make people particularly vulnerable to developing such mental health issues.”

To test the various factors that play a role in shaping COVID-19 fear, the researchers recruited 468 adults to participate in a short online survey. In the survey, they asked participants to report the following information:

  • Demographic information (age, gender, income, educational level, and location)
  • Disposition towards risk and uncertainty (e.g., “Taking risks makes life more fun,” “I commonly make risky decisions,” and “Unforeseen events upset me greatly”)
  • COVID-19 fear (e.g., “It makes me uncomfortable to think about Coronavirus-19” and “I am afraid of losing my life because of COVID-19”)
  • General anxiety levels
  • Depression levels
  • Protective behaviors (e.g., “In the last week, how often have you avoided social contact?” and “In the last week, how often do you feel the need to wash your hands?”)

They found that uncertainty intolerance (e.g., “Uncertainty keeps me from living a full life”) and general anxiety levels were most likely to predict high COVID-19 fear. The next strongest predictor of COVID-19 fear was one’s depression levels, followed by general risk aversion. Education was also a strong predictor of COVID-19 fear, such that people with more education tended to express more fear of the disease. Other demographic information such as age, gender, and income was less important, if not irrelevant, in predicting COVID-19 fear levels.

These findings square with other research showing that people’s fear responses to COVID-19 don’t necessarily line up with the factors most likely to increase COVID-19 hospitalization and mortality rates. For instance, data from the early stages of the pandemic showed a tenuous connection between the amount of COVID-19 fear found in a given country and the number of confirmed cases.

It also suggests new avenues for the treatment of COVID-19 anxiety.

“Treating dispositional mental health issues is difficult, and the effectiveness of most psychopharmacological and behavioral interventions do not exceed 50-60 percent,” say the researchers. “The disentanglement of the different psychological mechanisms at play offers the promise of increasing efficacy rates.”

A full interview with Dr. Philip Millroth discussing this research can be found here: "What Makes Us Susceptible to COVID-19 Anxiety?"

References

Millroth, P., & Frey, R. (2021). Fear and anxiety in the face of COVID-19: Negative dispositions towards risk and uncertainty as vulnerability factors. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 83, 102454.

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