Optimistic bias, risky behavior and social norms: why students struggle to assess pandemic risks

Following the devastating second wave of COVID-19 in the country, it is clear that in addition to vaccines, to control the epidemic, behavioral restrictions are essential.

The government has resorted to numerous restrictions such as lockdown, ban on social gatherings, closure of offices, restriction of public transport, restriction of intra-border travel, suspension of international flights and closure of borders. countries. They have issued advisories to limit the spread of the virus.

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These include staying at home, practicing physical distancing, avoiding crowded places, following personal hygiene and cleanliness measures such as using hand sanitizers, washing hands. repeatedly and wearing masks (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, nd; World Health Organization, 2020). Strict adherence to these behavioral restrictions can benefit society as a whole.

However, not all individuals, especially college students, comply with these required behaviors. These students typically stay in hostels and are therefore likely to disregard or differ government advice and continue to engage in activities that increase the risk of COVID-19 for themselves and others.

In fact, the perception of risk has strong implications for the spread of the pandemic since it can influence the practice of behaviors recommended by individuals.

The perception that one’s own risk is lower than the risk of other comparable people is called “optimistic bias.” Using survey data from college students in India, we are investigating whether optimistic biases among individuals regarding COVID-19 increase risky behavior.

Unrealistic optimism about their health or immune system increases the tendency of individuals to perceive risk lower than others, which leads to risk-taking or health avoidance behavior. Our study further examines whether risk behavior will be different for different cohorts such as parents, friends, others. In addition, it examines whether social norms encourage risk avoidance behaviors.

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Based on an empirical study of university students, we found that the presence of friends instead of strangers makes participants with a strong COVID-19 optimistic bias inclined to take more risks, i.e. – say that risky behaviors will be higher for close contacts (friends, neighbors) than for distant contacts (unknown).

Thus, students are more likely to neglect preventive behaviors when they are among close friends than others. However, we have found that preventive behavioral norms followed by peers minimize risky behavior in participants with a high optimistic bias, that is, individuals with a high optimistic bias will engage in less risky behavior. COVID-19 risk if they are primed by social norms that encourage risk avoidance practices.

Our results therefore offer important implications for policy makers to minimize disease transmission among students and suggest that facilitating risk avoidance norms will minimize risky behaviors for students who generally think they are less. vulnerable than others.

(Prof. Himanshu Rai, Director, IIM Indore; Prof. Sushanta K Mishra, Dean of Program and Faculty, IIM Indore and Dr Shanu Shukla, Academic Associate, IIM Indore)

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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