During the Covid-19 pandemic, many pleasant activities such as restaurant or gym visits posed substantial health risks both to ourselves and others. To engage in those activities, we systemically underestimated health risks, a new doctoral thesis from Lund University argues. The research shows that when provided with an incentive – a gift card for a café – subjects of the experimental study not only visited that café more often, but also convinced themselves that the risk of a café visit is low. They downplayed the risks associated with the pandemic to justify engagement in the risky activity.
How do people assess risks? This is an important question with great practical relevance during the Covid-19 pandemic as many habitual activities that involve social interactions suddenly posed a health threat. Owing to their importance, both social scientists and psychologists have focused on risk assessments and their formation long before the pandemic. Previous research builds on the assumption that subjective assessments are formed in an attempt to be accurate. In a recent paper, economist Marco Islam questions this previous assumption.
Measuring risk assessment with café vouchers
Marco Islam successfully defended his doctoral thesis on 3 June. In one of the papers in the thesis, he hypothesises that risk assessments can be outcomes of “wishful thinking” implying that people believe what they want to believe rather than what they should believe based on the information available. In the study presented in his doctoral thesis, Marco Islam investigates the formation of risk assessments in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic by making use of the fact that pleasant social activities during that time became risky both for oneself and for others.
The evidence of the study stems from a field experiment. In the spring of 2021, 434 unvaccinated students from Lund University received an incentive in form of a café voucher where each student was assigned to one of two groups. In the control group, the students received a 15 SEK (approx. 1.5 Euro) voucher; in the treatment group, the students received a 100 SEK (approx. 10 Euro) voucher. In addition, each student participated in multiple surveys at different points in time: before the voucher was introduced, after the voucher was introduced but before it was redeemed and 15 days after the introduction of the voucher, when it expired. Those surveys had the purpose of measuring the students’ risk assessments.
Students downplayed the risks
The results of the field experiment show that before the distribution of the voucher, students of both groups perceived café visits during the pandemic similarly and as relatively dangerous. Two weeks later, however, the risk assessments in both groups differed significantly. While students with the 15 SEK voucher perceived the risk of a visit as greater than two weeks earlier, consistent with the increase of Covid infections over that time, students with the 100 SEK voucher perceived the risk as smaller.
“The explanation for that finding lies in the fact that students of the treatment group developed a desire to use their voucher that was five times stronger than in the control group. Almost 50% of the students in the treatment but only 10% of the students in the control group redeemed their vouchers. To give in to that increased desire and justify a café visit, the students of the treatment downplayed the risk associated with Covid, ” says Marco Islam.
The left panel of the figure depicts the perceived risk by treatment group at the beginning of the study and at the end. The right panel depicts the downplaying of risk for the students who used their voucher to visit the café.
The downplaying did not happen after but before the café visit, and students of the treatment group were not better informed about the dangers of a café visit than students of the control group.
“This finding is important because it suggests that risk assessments are not necessarily formed with an attempt of accuracy. Instead, risk assessments can be outcomes of wishful thinking and serve the purpose of legitimising risky behaviour,” says Marco Islam.
The study also provides more detailed insights about which part of risk the students downplay. It distinguishes between the risk the student perceives for herself and the risk the student thinks to impose on others. It is the latter that students downplay most suggesting that personal benefits can displace concerns about others. Lastly, the research identifies so-called “spillover effects”.
“Students who convince themselves that cafés are safe enough to justify a visit also start to believe that the risks of other activities such as gym visits or travelling are low. The effect of “wishful thinking” can therefore have extensive consequences,” says Marco Islam.
Interpretations instead of clear rules
Although the study chooses a monetary incentive in form of a café voucher, Marco Islam says it is likely that the results would also extend to settings of non-monetary incentives, such as the entering of supporters to sport events or a personal invitation to a wedding during the pandemic.
“I argue the study provides an important argument against too liberal Corona policies and for rigorous testing. It shows that without clear rules and guidelines, people tend to interpret contextual incentives egoistically with the result that risks can be underestimated,” Marco Islam concludes.
This research was undertaken as part of Marco Islam’s studies at the Department of Economics at Lund University School of Economics and Management (LUSEM). The doctoral thesis includes three additional studies all of which build on economic experiments similar to the one described here. Marco Islam defended his thesis on 3 June 2022.