RAPID: Investigating the Causal Propositions of the Affect Heuristic During an Ongoing Pandemic: Decision Science Research Institute

William Burns

[email protected]

The unprecedented pandemic wrought by the coronavirus has infected many people around the world, triggering anxiety and panic and disrupting all facets of life. In addition to the growing numbers of cases and deaths, the social, economic, and political impacts are vast. Lacking a vaccine or effective therapeutic cure, the front line of defense against the spread of this disease depends on human behavior, following guidelines about social distancing, sanitation, and other recommended measures. There is great uncertainty about the future trajectory of the disease and its impacts. Against the backdrop of this catastrophic threat this research forecasts public perceptions of risks, including hopes and fears, using a new theoretical model based on what is known as ?the affect heuristic.? The researchers build and test this model in two ways that increase understanding of how positive and negative emotions, influenced by daily news reports, interact to guide behavior. Understanding the changing reactions to news information not only advances understanding of risk perception, but enables the creation of effective risk communication messages. The research provides insight into the behaviors that will determine the course of the disease and can help to mitigate its harmful social and economic impacts.<br/><br/>Studies have consistently found an inverse relationship between judgments of benefits and risks associated with a wide array of hazards. This relationship occurs because perceptions of risk and benefit are derived in opposite ways from an affective sense of the importance of the risk. This process became known as the affect heuristic. The causal dynamics that underlie the relationship between affect and perceived risks and benefits remain poorly understood. This project does three things: (1a) constructs a system dynamics simulation model that explicitly incorporates the informational feedback loops that allow affect to play this moderating role and (1b) simulates the trajectories of affect and perceived risk and benefits as the coronavirus pandemic unfolds, (2) constructs a hybrid agent-based model that incorporates findings from the systems model but allows for heterogeneity (e.g., different levels of medical vulnerability) among agents, and (3) conducts a longitudinal national panel to survey the public?s response to the pandemic over a 6 month period. These data together with data from an independent panel are be used to estimate and validate both models. This project has broad impacts because understanding how we manage our perceptions of risk and benefits is critical to the decisions we make and our behaviors. The project helps to explain this entanglement and predict public reaction to the current pandemic and, potentially, to other crises.<br/><br/>This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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