Coronavirus: Right-wing men who don't know anyone who's had COVID-19 least likely to fear it - study

Whether or not you fear catching COVID-19 could depend more on your politics and values than on the number of cases being reported, new research has found.

They also appear to have a bigger influence on what steps you're willing to take to avoid being infected too. 

Researchers in the UK measured attitudes towards the pandemic between March 2020 and January 2021, during which time the UK experienced three major waves of infections. 

The overall threat people felt waxed and waned only slightly with the number of daily infections - people's politics exerting a far bigger influence, this also having an impact on what protective measures they took.

"Our results suggest that people's values, worldviews and sense of personal efficacy, play a larger role for risk perception compared to more 'objective' and cognitive factors, such as personal knowledge and COVID-19 case reports," said Prof Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist at the University of Cambridge.

Those less likely to report feeling threatened by the virus were male, politically right-wing, individualistic and in favour of less government intervention. They also were more likely to have trust in the government's ability to control the pandemic (it's not clear if this was a consequence of the present government being led by the right-wing Conservative Party). 

People more likely to feel threatened by COVID-19 had direct experience with the disease, prosocial tendencies ("belief in the importance of doing things for the benefit of others and society even at personal cost"), higher trust in science and medical professionals, and a belief in personal efficacy - that their individual actions could halt the virus' spread (such as staying at home when unwell, washing hands, etc). They had less trust in the government's ability to stop the outbreak on its own.

The level of education appeared to have no influence on whether someone felt threatened by the virus.

"The three most important determinants were the extent to which people thought the government should intervene in society, their feelings of personal ability to stop the spread, and their tendencies to do things for the benefits of others," the scientists said in a statement. "Trust in science ranked fourth and gender fifth." 

The more people felt threatened, the more likely they were to adopt protective measures - there was a slight increase over the 10 months. 

"Since our behavioural index does not include items mandated by official rules (such as guidelines surrounding social gatherings) but represents behaviours that are at the discretion of each individual, the increase in reported health protective behaviours suggests that people in the UK - at least in our surveyed samples - have increased their own personal actions voluntarily in response to the pandemic threat."

The researchers say their findings could help guide future pandemic public information campaigns.

"Although risk communicators may be tempted to try to increase perception of the risk of COVID-19 as a means of ramping up greater protective behaviour in the population, we caution that a fearful population is not necessarily a desirable endpoint," the study, published in the Journal of Risk Research, concluded.