What does hand-washing have to do with risk-taking? New study!

May 19, 2020
What does hand-washing have to do with risk-taking? New study!

This week’s Bipolar Blog post is a guest post coming in from Julia Lukacs, M.Sc. In this post, Julia shares her new study, partnered with Dr. Guillermo Perez Algorta, about how people’s reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic relate to risk-taking behaviour. The study is still open to everyone!


What does washing your hands during a global pandemic have to do with risk-taking?

Our research team is working to better understand how risk-taking and perception of the COVID-19 pandemic are linked. We believe that the variations in individual reactions to regulations imposed by governments to the coronavirus may tell us a great deal about our society’s capacity to counteract diffuse global risks.

Dr. Guillermo Perez Algorta, lecturer from the Division of Health and Research at Lancaster University in the UK, initiated a line of research into risk-taking in Bipolar Disorder. I joined his lab and focused my master’s thesis in 2017 on this work, and even wrote a blog post outlining a few common myths about risk-taking. This project sparked my interest in risk-taking behaviors, and led to the idea to conduct this study.  I hope to continue exploring some of these themes during my doctorate at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

Julia, from the neck up, smiling. She's outside against a blurred green background.
Julia Lukacs, M.Sc.
Guillermo, from the neck up, smiling. He's against a grey wall.
Guillermo Perez Algorta, Ph.D.

Why are you doing this project?

As I wrote in my earlier post, risk is not always negative; some risk is unavoidable, and how risky something is depends on a range of factors, including our health. These statements ring true today. Risk is all around us, insofar as risk is simply an interaction with uncertainty. However, with the recent health situation, our daily exposure to uncertainty has increased. The health-related, economic, and societal implications of the current crisis are yet to be measured and understood, but each of us feels the weight of the unknown.

“Some individuals are daredevils, and others prefer to err on the side of caution, while most are in between. These individual variations do not disappear when the matter at hand is a global pandemic.”

Some low-risk behaviors of everyday life, such as grocery shopping or exercising, now entail more uncertainty and require more caution. Although this feeling of uncertainty may seem novel, there are echoes of other aspects of life. Risk can only be evaluated using information, and information can alter our decision of something as risky. We may view climbing tall ladders as low-risk until we hear about someone falling and seriously injuring themselves or dying.

This decision of whether something is risky or not varies from person to person, and is called risk perception. Some individuals are daredevils, and others prefer to err on the side of caution, while most are in between. These individual variations do not disappear when the matter at hand is a global pandemic.

A woman in at the grocery store wearing a face mask. She's reaching towards a basket of tomatoes.

Many countries have taken unprecedented measures, and asked their citizens to socially distance and even quarantine themselves in the interest of public health. How individuals perceive the current health situation (in terms of riskiness) influences how they react to these regulations.

This is part of why global phenomena, such as health crises, may be difficult to manage on a societal scale. These crises demand access to reliable information (i.e. about the virus) and a perception of given action (or inaction) as risky (or not), to drive large-scale changes in behavior (such as social distancing or confinement).

What we hope most is to gain a better understanding of the link between information, perception, decision, and behavior, all in terms of how we understand risk.

What does this project involve?

We are conducting a questionnaire on an international scale, open to all participants above the age of 18 who speak English. The questionnaire takes between 20 and 40 minutes.

We ask participants to answer a series of questions about how they perceive the risk of the current health crisis, and to think back in time to their behaviors at various time points before, during, and, in applicable cases, after restrictions in their countries or regions of residence have been lifted. We also ask participants to respond to questions about their personality, their personal understanding of risk, and finally, some basic demographic questions.

We are still in need of participants to help us complete our study. If you would like to participate, please go to: https://is.gd/covidpercep

What are the next steps?

Once we have obtained a sufficient amount of data, we will analyze the results and share them both in academic settings, such as scientific journals, and non-academic settings, such as through this blog. We hope that other people will see the value in understanding individual perceptions of risk and grasp the important role that these perceptions play in preparing for future global phenomena of this kind.


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