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Precautionary Behavior Around Coronavirus Aligns With Perceived Risk

PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: While many people are sheltering in place to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus, some people don't seem all that worried. These differences in behavior and attitude have a lot to do with how people perceive their risk of getting sick. NPR's Patti Neighmond has this report.

NEIGHMOND: Everybody should be taking this crisis seriously, says Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

TOM FRIEDEN: This is an unprecedented event. Nothing that any of us can remember in our lifetimes is like this.

NEIGHMOND: Frieden is now president of Resolve To Save Lives, part of the global organization Fatal Strategies. He says many young people are particularly fearful.

FRIEDEN: I was walking down the street the other day. It was a pleasant day in New York City. And a young woman walked past wearing gloves and a mask and all bundled up. Maybe she had a reason to do that, but that's unlikely to be either protective of her or necessary at this time.

NEIGHMOND: Other young people don't seem terribly worried at all. College senior Emily Proctor (ph) was in Miami for spring break before the city closed its beaches. She knows she shouldn't have been partying in such large gatherings.

EMILY PROCTOR: I say - and at the end of the day, it does make us feel pretty guilty. But then also, like, we're college seniors, and we had one more weekend to enjoy ourselves. We don't know what's going to happen over the next couple of months.

NEIGHMOND: And while many older adults are taking precautions, a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds many are not. Researcher Molly Anne Brody.

MOLLY ANNE BRODY: Adults who are most likely to be at risk for complications from the coronavirus were no more likely to take precautions than were younger adults and those who are healthy.

NEIGHMOND: Momentous swings from great fear to I'm invincible to a sort of business as usual approach has a lot to do with uncertainty. Andrew Maynard with Arizona State University studies how people view risk.

ANDREW MAYNARD: The ways we typically deal with risk are to look at what's happened in the past and what we've learned in the past and apply that to the future. But when we've got something happening that we've never experienced before or rarely experienced before, we're basically sort of driving in the dark.

NEIGHMOND: When that happens, rather than look at the facts, people often rely on emotions.

MAYNARD: And in that case, we make mistakes because we base our responses on gut feelings. And if our gut doesn't know anything about coronavirus, the chances are that it's going to be wrong sometimes.

NEIGHMOND: In this situation, people typically look at what others are doing and saying.

MAYNARD: And in that circumstance, it's the loudest voices and the voices that resonate most with our feelings that we pay attention to, or those voices that resonate with the sorts of people that we think are right-thinking people that we pay attention to.

NEIGHMOND: And the loudest voices, he says, are often the scariest. Psychologist Ellen Peters with the University of Oregon studies how people perceive risk and how it affects their behavior. She says fear can help you prepare, but it can also lead you to do things that are counterproductive.

ELLEN PETERS: And it may be what underlies some of the hoarding behaviors that people have been going through, where toilet paper is missing off of our grocery shelves. At our local Costco, we couldn't get crunchy peanut butter anymore.

NEIGHMOND: Equally important in shaping how we view the risk of the virus, Maynard says, is how much it might threaten the people we care about.

MAYNARD: I've talked to people who have family members or friends that are in vulnerable populations here, and they are very concerned because they don't want anything bad happening to friends and family and loved ones.

NEIGHMOND: Also, Maynard says, people who are civic-minded and care about their communities are more likely to take this risk seriously. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRTWIRE'S "AMPHIBIAN CIRCUITS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.