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Surprise: coronavirus skeptics are actually young, healthy, and conservative

A new Johns Hopkins study has found that coronavirus skeptics are younger, healthier, and more politically conservative than average.

A new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University has found that coronavirus skeptics are more likely than average to be young, healthy, and politically conservative.

Despite the harrowing statistics about the lethality of COVID-19, many people deny the seriousness of the disease, and think of it as “overblown or a hoax,” as the study’s authors put it.

This perspective is important, because people who downplay the risks of the pandemic form a threat to public health. For example, their behaviors can harm efforts made to reduce transmission of the disease.

That’s why the researchers examined the links between the coronavirus skeptics and their health behaviors. They also looked at the skeptics’ political ideology, self-perceived health, and other demographic factors.

The new study appeared on January 6 in the journal Current Psychology.

Assessing the coronavirus skeptics

The researchers recruited 683 participants via Mechanical Turk, in March and May of 2020. The participants’ average age was 39, and about 56% were female. They came from a broad range of ethic and educational backgrounds.

The study’s participants responded on a 5-point scale (from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”) to three statements. “The health risks from coronavirus have been exaggerated” was the first. The second statement was “the coronavirus is a hoax,” and third was “the coronavirus isn’t any worse than the flu.”

They also answered questions about their use of face masks, about whether their friends are practicing social distancing, about what percentage of people in the U.S. they expect will get the coronavirus, whether they had been tested, whether they expected anyone close to them to die of the virus, and how often they consume news about the coronavirus.

Furthermore, they responded to the statement “China purposely spread the coronavirus.”

They also indicated their gender, political ideology, income, education, age, and perceived level of health.

What do the coronavirus skeptics have in common?

The study found that people who were younger, had better self-perceived health, and who identified as politically conservative were more likely to be skeptical about COVID-19. The coronavirus skeptics were also less likely to believe people close to them would die of the disease. Likewise, they were also more likely to believe that China had purposefully spread the virus.

Furthermore, the skeptics were less likely to engage in COVID-19 prevention behaviors such as mask-wearing and spending more time inside. They also reported that their friends were less likely to practice social distancing.

Overall, only a minority of the participants endorsed “COVID-19 skeptical” beliefs. About 17% felt the COVID-19 health risks had been exaggerated. Likewise, 8% felt it was no worse than the flu, and 3% thought it was a hoax.

There were no significant associations between COVID-19 skepticism and gender, education, or income.

What explains these links?

The authors present several possible explanations for these correlations. COVID-19 skeptics might, for example, follow news sources that support these beliefs.

A more general explanation is the concept of “reactance,” which means experiencing negative feelings or intolerance when one believes that “others, including those in government or public health fields, encourage them to think or act in a certain way.”

As Wikipedia puts it, “reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away their choices or limiting the range of alternatives.”

Prior research has also linked reactance to higher rates of anti-vaccine beliefs.

Curiously, respondents with better self-reported health status were also more likely to express skepticism towards the severity of the coronavirus. This association might be because people who “perceive that they are in better health also believe that COVID-19 will not impact them,” the authors write. As such, “they discount COVID-19 as a factor that could threaten their health”; this phenomenon has also been documented with other health conditions.

In terms of the link between pandemic skepticism and youth, the authors propose that young people “may be less likely to interact with individuals who have high mortality risks, and hence do not view COVID-19 risk as seriously compared to older adults.”

Will the COVID-19 coronavirus skeptics change their minds?

So what can public health authorities do to convince the skeptics of the situation’s gravity? The obvious answer is to provide them with clear evidence that this virus is a deadly serious one.

But that approach may not work. Past research suggests “that people develop attitudes and then find evidence to support those attitudes,” the authors write.

As they point out, interventions meant to refute antivaccination myths have largely failed, and may even cause people to hold those beliefs more deeply.

“If this group is similar to those who hold antivaccination beliefs,” the authors conclude, “it is not likely that additional information is likely to change their beliefs.”

Study: Behavioral and psychosocial factors associated with COVID-19 skepticism in the United States
Authors: Latkin, C.A., Dayton, L., Moran, M. et al. 
Published in: Current Psychology
Publication date: January 6, 2021
Photo: by Nick Bolton via Unsplash