New study shows differences in how men and women perceive risks of COVID-19 pandemic
In March 2020, just days into the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of Virginia Tech economic researchers started brainstorming ideas for a study that would gauge how people were emotionally responding to the pandemic.
“As a team of behavioral economists, we are interested in how people make decisions and in factors that contribute to changes in behavior. The onset of the pandemic seemed like a worldwide natural experiment, and we were immediately drawn to investigating its implications on individuals and the process of decision-making,” said Abdelaziz Alsharawy, lead author on the study and a recent Ph.D. graduate in economics. He is now a post-doctorate researcher at Princeton University.
The team was especially interested in how the fear of COVID-19 affected people’s behavior and economic choices — specifically if those reactions differed between men and women. Starting in early April 2020, the team issued a survey to 1,500 people randomly selected from across the United States and asked them to answer questions about their demographics, attitudes, social preferences, and how they were following preventative health measures.
The resulting study, recently published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, revealed that women were more likely to report extreme levels of fear of COVID-19 than men.
In fact, when survey responders were asked to rate their fear of the pandemic on a sliding scale, nearly 20 percent of women chose the highest possible option compared with 9.3 percent of men. However, previous studies have shown that men are more likely to experience severe illness or die of COVID-19.
“That’s the big surprise in the paper. It’s a mismatch,” said Sheryl Ball, a professor in the Department of Economics, part of the Virginia Tech College of Science. “You would think that if the health risks are bigger for one group than another group, you expect the group that is facing the greater risks to be working harder to not get COVID, and we just don’t see that.”
Survey respondents also rated how likely they were to adopt Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended practices such as handwashing, physical distancing, and wearing a face mask. The data revealed that women were more likely to follow these practices than men, and that behavior is motivated by a fear of COVID-19.
“It isn’t being female that makes you adhere to the preventative measures, it’s the level of fear,” said Alec Smith, an assistant professor of economics. “And it just happens to be true that women have more fear of COVID than men.”
The gender differences don’t stop there — the survey also gauged how people perceived both the health and financial consequences of the pandemic. Women were more likely to be concerned about the health risks than men, but men showed greater worry for the financial consequences. This surprised the team, as they hypothesized that women would show greater fear for both.
Identifying these gender differences can help improve how information about the pandemic is delivered, since men and women may respond to messages differently. For example, men might resonate more with messages that emphasize how following CDC recommendations will ultimately ease the financial consequences of the pandemic by helping get the U.S. back on track.
Tailoring these messages to a specific audience make them more effective — and in a pandemic, such messages save lives.
“We hope that this research contributes to our understanding of how to convince large groups of people to make behavioral changes in response to an urgent situation like a global pandemic,” said co-author Ross Spoon, a graduate student in economics. “Understanding how different groups of people respond to information and emotional appeals will help governments and other institutions craft communication strategies to deal with these situations.”
The world looked and felt drastically different in April 2020 when the data was collected, but the applications of this research branch far into the future when thinking about public health messaging.
“I think that understanding the gender difference we document in this paper is going to be an important piece of evidence in thinking about lessons learned from this pandemic,” Ball said. “There will be other disease outbreaks in the future, and we want to make sure that we do better than we did now.”