Not Concerned with COVID? That's Your Bias Speaking

Priya Raghubir

By Priya Raghubir

By Priya Raghubir

No one is immune. Despite the calls worldwide to take great precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are less concerned about a health risk than they should be because they believe that negative things are less likely to happen to them than to others. This is a bias referred to as self-positivity. Research after the AIDS outbreak demonstrated how people believed that they were at lower risk of contracting the virus than the average person; an effect that further research confirmed in the domain of cancer.

Self-positivity typically affects only the health of the person displaying it, making them less likely to engage in preventative behaviors, or get tested – not others around them. COVID-19 is different, and having self-positivity bias during this time could make this pandemic even more catastrophic. Having the self-positivity bias about COVID-19 may be more likely to affect others – those who are older and have pre-existing conditions. This is particularly true as people may be carriers of COVID-19 without any symptoms, and, may, therefore, use the absence of their symptoms as a reason to self-select out of the “at-risk” group, even if they have been exposed to people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

We have seen classic examples of the self-positivity bias during the COVID-19 outbreak. Crowded bars filled with people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, spring breakers packing onto coastal beaches, and even members of our government, including the President, and members of his team, who have repeatedly ignored their own advice.  But these individuals are no less immune from COVID-19 than the average person of their age and gender.

Self-positivity bias may make it more likely that people won’t take necessary precautions when dealing with this virus -- but make no mistake that everyone needs to act with caution now. People who have any likelihood at all of having COVID-19 should refrain from handshakes and physical greetings, self-isolate, and request to get tested. They should not use the absence of symptoms as an excuse for not getting tested, or not self-isolating. Putting yourself at risk is a personal choice; putting others at risk is selfish behavior that could severely impact the health of those around you. People need to appreciate that even if they are less at risk than other demographics, they may well be carriers even if they are asymptomatic. Even if there are no restrictions imposed in their states and cities, they need to strongly consider not going out to eat and drink, or going to the gym, as they may infect others.

Practice social-distancing. Do not shake hands. Get tested if you have been exposed to any person who has tested positive or if you have symptoms. Wash your hands. Don’t let the bias fool you: you shouldn’t believe “it can’t happen to me,” because the pandemic will prove you wrong every time.

Priya Raghubir is the Dean Abraham L. Gitlow Professor of Business at the NYU Stern School of Business. She has published extensively on perceptions of health risk (including AIDS and cancer), and when and why people believe they are less at risk of negative things happening to them as compared to others.