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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Why COVID-19 might have altered your perception of risk and your policy preferences

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Spike Lee

When the global pandemic struck, emotions ran high: many of us felt anxious, afraid and overwhelmed. Now, months into the pandemic, those feelings haven’t subsided, and they might be warping our general perception of risk.

“This isn’t to say that people are acting irrationally or are overly worried right now,” explains Spike Lee, an associate professor in the Marketing area at the Rotman School. “However, we have to recognize that we might be overgeneralizing our feelings around risk right now, and that can have unintended consequences.”

His new paper, which was published online in Frontiers in Psychology in June 2020, takes a closer look at how the global pandemic has evoked certain emotional and psychological responses and why COVID-19 has been so heavily intertwined with xenophobic attitudes. Lee also draws on previous research to explain how the public’s stance on policy matters might be changing during this crisis, and how political leaders might be taking advantage of this.

According to Lee, there are a number of reasons why this health crisis has evoked the strong, emotional responses we are observing today. Firstly, the coronavirus was immediately recognized as a salient and enormous threat. Secondly, there was — and continues to be — an element of unfamiliarity surrounding the virus. For instance, at first, we didn’t have a clear picture of the confirmed number of cases or the complete range of symptoms. And we still don't have a strong grasp of the long-term consequences (if any) of the virus.

The enormity of this new, unfamiliar threat has triggered panic — and xenophobia. “It’s an unfortunate aspect of human nature to assign blame,” explains Lee. “For many of us, it feels like the virus came out of nowhere. Because it spread through travel, it became easy to blame certain groups, specifically immigrants and foreigners.”

We have to recognize that we might be overgeneralizing our feelings around risk right now, and that can have unintended consequences.

—Spike Lee, Associate Professor of Marketing

As he watched fear and panic spread, Lee wondered how COVID-19 and the widespread emotional responses that followed could be affecting our current frame of mind.

Lee previously explored this idea in past research. During the H1N1 epidemic in 2009, he conducted a study where he asked pedestrians on an American college campus to assess the average American’s risk of contracting a serious disease, suffering from a heart attack or being killed in an accident or crime in the next year.

He threw in an experimental condition: Lee had a fellow experimenter walk by and sneeze or cough loudly in the nearby vicinity, before the respondents had a chance to answer. Not surprisingly, risk estimates were significantly higher in the group that had been exposed to a nearby threat (a cough or a sneeze) versus those who weren’t.

Lee followed this experiment up with another. This time, he asked respondents to share their opinions on whether government funds should be devoted to developing flu vaccines or creating green jobs. When a cougher or sneezer was present, respondents chose vaccine development about 48 per cent of the time, compared to only 16 per cent of the time when they were left alone.

“Something as simple as a cough or sneeze clearly triggered the feeling of being under threat — and it influenced people’s sense of security and opinions on policy matters,” explains Lee. “This type of phenomenon is likely playing out today, as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Knowing all this, what can we do? Lee urges citizens to pay attention to their reactions and to accept that their perceptions around risk and health policy might be skewed right now.

He also warns that political leaders might be playing on their constituents’ fears or enforcing xenophobic attitudes to garner support for their policy decisions.

“They know the playbook, and they are singing a tune that resonates with followers,” says Lee. “In times like these, it could be easy for a leader to use fear and xenophobia to justify certain funding decisions or political actions.”

That said, these tactics won’t work for too long. “Keeping people scared isn’t conducive to rational, balanced and intelligent decision-making, and that is the only realistic way to move forward from this crisis.


Spike LeeSpike Lee is an associate professor of marketing and psychology, cross-appointed at the University of Toronto. He is interested in how higher-order mental processes are grounded in sensorimotor experiences with the physical world, often leading to quirky effects.