A vial containing a COVID-19 vaccine with syringes behind.

Same Pandemic, Different Attitudes

A vial containing a COVID-19 vaccine with syringes behind.
A vaccine for COVID-19.

In a series of studies over the course of the global pandemic, research involving The University of Alabama examined the formation of risk perception and the drivers of participating in mitigation behaviors, and found some behaviors are different than what might be expected.

For instance, those diagnosed with COVID-19, or who had family members diagnosed with the virus, are less likely to support public health mitigation efforts, while those in the social circle of someone diagnosed with the disease are more likely to support mitigation. Also, people with more social capital, meaning strong and trusting social connections with families, friends and neighbors, took the coronavirus and mitigation more seriously, possibly counterintuitive that people in a strong community might feel less threatened.

Americans’ attitudes and behaviors were shaped over the course of the coronavirus pandemic by their perception of risk, which was influenced by political views, trust in political leaders, personal experience, views on the mainstream media and diagnosis of illness, among others. The findings were explained in a series of papers published between September 2020 and July 2021.

“Even though Americans shared the experience of living through a global pandemic, their individual attitudes towards it differed and evolved – sometimes dramatically,” the researchers wrote in a recently published article.

Dr. Wanyun Shao, UA assistant professor of geography, along with Dr. Feng Hao, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of South Florida, led the four studies on risk perception during the pandemic using public opinion polls and state-level data.

“Our studies along with others contribute to the body of knowledge about the formation of risk perceptions and drivers of risk mitigation behaviors throughout a rapidly evolving public health crisis,” Shao said.

Some of their findings confirm intuitive perspectives society observed during the pandemic, but the empirical evidence provides support to confirm theories and anecdotal experiences, she said. These insights can help the country better prepare for the next pandemic, Shao said.

The research duo used statistical modeling of data from public opinion polls conducted by Pew Research Center, National Opinion Research Center, Democracy Fund and the University of California-Los Angeles along with their own survey and state-level data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Moody’s Analytics and National Conference of State Legislatures.

A woman poses for a photo in front of a river.
Dr. Wanyun Shao

In their first paper published in September 2020, the researchers found public health and politics are interwoven. Confidence in political leaders can reduce the perception of risk from COVID-19 and bring political ideology into risk perceptions.

“In a highly politicized era, COVID-19 seems to share the same destiny with a long list of issues such as immigration, abortion and climate change,” Shao and Hao write. “In this study, we have found some evidence for the politicization of COVID-19, where conservatives show lower risk perceptions than liberals and moderates.”

In their most recent paper, they found favorability towards a political leader, either President Joe Biden or former President Donald Trump, can slant public support for COVID-19 mitigation measures among different segments of the public.

This can also extend to state leadership, the researchers found. Also, at the state level, the economic recovery from the early days of the pandemic led to less concern and higher likelihood of forgoing public health mitigation measures.

The researchers suspect economic recovery provided people with the impression that a return to normal was around the corner, which helped form a false sense of safety.

Beyond politics, though, the researchers found that individual behavior was influenced by ties to family, friends and neighbors.

“People who live in communities with more connections and trust want to protect others for the common good,” Shao said. “Recently, there has been a surge in the number of studies looking into social capital and disaster recovery. To put it simply, communities with higher social capital weather better during and after a disaster.”

As for experience with COVID-19, the analysis showed that Americans who contracted the disease did not necessarily lead to support of public health mandates and guidelines, yet those who had others in their social circle with the disease were more likely to support those measures.

“These two together make us suspect that hearing ‘horror stories’ from others can evoke concern while directly experiencing COVID can lower the concern as if the suspense is over,” Shao said. “This attitudinal change is perfectly embodied in Nietzsche’s quote ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’”


Adam Jones, UA communications, 205-348-4328, adam.jones@ua.edu