Iowa State Research Indicates Behavioral Bias Increases COVID-19 Risks

Ritwik Banerjee;
Joydeep Bhattacharya;

June 2, 2020

AMES, Iowa – Researchers from Iowa State University and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, India, focused on how people underestimate the speed at which disease spreads in a pandemic, which increases their risk of infection.

Research on the exponential-growth prediction bias (EGPB) was published in The research in behavioral psychology and economics documented how behavioral biases, such as optimism and overconfidence may compromise the perception of risk.

Researchers Ritwik Banerjee, associate professor and Priyama Majumdar, research assistant, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore; and Joydeep Bhattacharya, Iowa State professor of economics, used data from a global survey about people’s perception. The errors in perception are key to understanding their compliance with widely recommended safety precautions of frequent hand washing, use of hand sanitizers, facemasks, and social distancing/self-quarantine.

“People tend to think of growth as something that happens at a constant rate,” said Bhattacharya. “But in the early stages of an infectious disease outbreak, the disease spreads at a non-constant rate, often increasing as time unfolds. This makes a big difference when it comes to people’s prediction of how likely it is they will catch the disease.”

The study found evidence of rampant prediction biases, which are a significant predictor of lower safety compliance, less disagreement with violations of safety measures, and a greater satisfaction with the government’s response to the pandemic. It also found that disease trajectory data presented as raw numbers, as opposed to the common “flatten the curve” style graphs, could reduce the prediction bias and lower people’s risk perception and increase compliance behavior.