Background: The outbreak of COVID-19 has been a major interrupting event, challenging how societies and individuals deal with risk. An essential determinant of the virus’ spread is a series of individual decisions, such as wearing face masks in public space. Those decisions depend on trade-offs between costs (or benefits) and risks, and beliefs are key to explain these.

Methods: We elicit beliefs about the COVID-19 pandemic during lockdown in France by means of surveys asking French citizens about their belief of the infection fatality ratio (IFR) for COVID-19, own risk to catch the disease, risk as perceived by others, and expected prevalence rate. Those self-assessments were measured twice during lockdown: about 2 weeks after lockdown started and about 2 weeks before lockdown ended. We also measured the quality of these beliefs with respect to available evidence at the time of the surveys, allowing us to assess the calibration of beliefs based on risk-related socio-demographics. Finally, comparing own risk to expected prevalence rates in the two successive surveys provides a dynamic view of comparative optimism with respect to the disease.

Results: The risk perceptions are rather high in absolute terms and they increased between the two surveys. We found no evidence for an impact of personal experience with COVID-19 on beliefs and lower risk perceptions of the IFR when someone in the respondent’s family has been diagnosed with a disease. Answers to survey 1 confirmed this pattern with a clear indication that respondents were optimistic about their chances to catch COVID-19. However, in survey 2, respondents revealed comparative pessimism.

Conclusion: The results show that respondents overestimated the probabilities to catch or die from COVID-19, which is not unusual and does not necessarily reflect a strong deviation from rational behavior. While a rational model explains why the own risk to catch COVID-19 rose between the two surveys, it does not explain why the subjective assessment of the IFR remained stable. The comparative pessimism in survey 2 was likely due to a concomitant increase in the respondents’ perceived chances to catch the disease and a decreased expected prevalence rate.

The Coconel Group,
Frontiers in Psychology
The Erasmus Centre for Health Economics Rotterdam

Attema, A.E, L'Haridon, O, J. Raude (Jocelyn), & V. Seror (Valérie). (2021). Beliefs and Risk Perceptions About COVID-19: Evidence From Two Successive French Representative Surveys During Lockdown. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.619145