“Imparting knowledge is not enough”

ETH researchers have investigated how the population has been complying with the prescribed measures to combat the coronavirus. Angela Bearth, one of the authors of the study, explains what conclusions can be drawn from the data so far and what areas deserve particular attention in the near future.
Angela Bearth finds it remarkable how many elderly people still went shopping for themselves, even during the acute phase. (Photograph: Angela Bearth / ETH Zürich)

Ms. Bearth, together with other members of the Consumer Behaviour Group at ETH Zurich, you studied the behaviour of the German-speaking Swiss population during the coronavirus crisis. What exactly were you examining?
Angela Bearth: Over the past few months, we’ve conducted two longitudinal surveys. In the first survey, we asked some 1,500 people aged 18 to 69 a total of four times about their behaviour during the coronavirus crisis. We asked the first round of questions right at the beginning of the lockdown in mid-March, and the final round now after masks were made compulsory on public transport. For the second survey, we asked around 500 people over 59 years of age a total of three times about their behaviour. We deliberately focused this second survey on the main risk group.

How representative are the two groups?
I’m a bit hesitant to describe the two groups as representative, but they certainly give a good picture of the situation, as we made sure there was a representative distribution of the sexes and age groups. Both groups tend to be slightly better educated than the average population.

Let’s talk about the elderly first. How well did they comply with the recommendations?
What’s remarkable is that about 60 percent of the elderly people still went shopping for themselves, even during the acute phase. Of course, not everybody has a nice neighbour who can do that for them. But it is astonishing how few followed this particular recommendation. The answers to the open-ended questions confirm that many older people feel patronised if they’re no longer allowed to shop for themselves.

«Overall, the hygiene measures were well observed.»      Angela Bearth

What about the other recommendations?
Overall, the hygiene measures were well observed, although risk awareness is significantly higher among people with a pre-existing condition.

Your survey also shows that 20 percent of older people saw their grandchildren during the lockdown. What do you think of this number?
Considering that there was an explicit recommendation not to see grandchildren, I find the number quite high. Our data shows that the social distancing measures were rather difficult to implement, for instance because social contacts are immensely important for human well-being and older people maybe had fewer opportunities to compensate for this with digital communication media.

You mentioned earlier that the groups studied tend to be more highly educated. How would the results have shifted if you’d interviewed a group with an average level of education?
It’s counterintuitive, but education has less influence on people’s perception of risk than you might think. We see this again and again in our studies. There are other psychological mechanisms at work that counteract factual knowledge. One example is trivializing assessments: people believe they’re at less risk because they live healthy lives or because they think their immune system is strong. This is how people try to resolve the inner tension that can arise from dangerous behaviour, even though they know how to protect themselves.

So the imparting of background knowledge doesn’t help much at all?
I wouldn’t say that. But imparting knowledge alone is simply not enough. This is plain to see when you talk about, say, smoking.

Your figures show that a remarkably large number of people – over 40 percent – think they are at less risk than the average, even though the virus threatens everyone equally. In contrast, only about 10 percent think they are at greater risk of being infected.
This might have something to do with “optimism bias”, as it’s called in psychology. People are convinced that they are less affected by an illness than the average – even though there’s a reason why this average exists.

Now we come to the question of masks. What do you have to say about them?
It wasn’t until the fourth round of questions that we went into this topic in more detail. On most of the questions, we got roughly the same answers from wearers of masks and from non-wearers of masks. For example, both groups responded equally often that they find it uncomfortable to wear a mask in summer. What is remarkable, however, is that non-wearers of masks are much more likely than wearers of masks to think that masks are ineffective, and they’re also more likely to be convinced there’s no point in making masks compulsory in view of the low case numbers.

So is this where an unfortunate message at the outset of the crisis comes back to bite us?
I suspect it is. We know from other surveys that Swiss people value research highly. If, at the start of the crisis, the argument is made that masks are ineffective from a scientific standpoint, then that impression will stick.

And yet almost everyone now wears a mask on public transport.
Yes, because it’s a rule that many now follow. What we’re talking about here is a social norm: people observe how others behave and adapt their own behaviour accordingly. Most people are uncomfortable when they stand out in a crowd. Before masks were made compulsory, it was people wearing masks who attracted attention; now it’s those who decide not to wear one.

So the new norm has established itself?
It’s hard to say. Wearing a mask isn’t just about protecting myself, but also and above all about protecting others. The altruistic attitude is: I wear a mask to protect other people, even if I don’t benefit that much myself from doing so. The more selfish one is: why should I wear a mask when there’s hardly any benefit in it for me? It’s difficult to predict which view will prevail based just on theory.

«I’m sceptical whether we can rely on altruism.»      Angela Bearth

What do you think?
I’m sceptical whether we can rely on altruism. In fact, our data shows that non-wearers of masks are more convinced than wearers of masks that wearing a mask primarily protects others. So they see even less benefit for themselves. This may also explain why so many people don’t wear their mask correctly.

What conclusions can you draw from these findings?
The most difficult thing will be to maintain risk awareness. Like I said, imparting knowledge is not enough. People have experiences, and these also play a role. Anyone who repeatedly travels on the train, eats in restaurants, and goes to clubs without anything happening will soon feel safe, even though this impression is deceptive.

That seems to be the case with young people in particular right now. Can you understand why it is that older people are angry with young clubbers?
This is a critical point. Once fixed groups have been formed – i.e. “the young” against “the old” – that’s when mutual consideration gets tricky. By the way, our data also shows that 20- to 34-year-olds are more likely to wear a mask than 35- to 49-year-olds. So this seems to be the age group that’s the most carefree.

You conducted the survey in German-speaking Switzerland. Can your results be applied to the other parts of the country?
On many issues, people’s perception of risk is pretty much the same in the different parts of the country. In this case, however, the results are more difficult to carry over, because people in French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland have had different experiences from those in German-speaking Switzerland.

In science, it is common practice to communicate findings only after they have been peer reviewed. At the same time, the public would like to learn about findings as quickly as possible. How do you deal with this contradiction?
So far, we’ve been reluctant to discuss our results in public because we wanted to discuss them with colleagues in the field first, and they also haven’t yet gone through the peer review process. At the same time, however, we know that the situation can change very quickly and that it’s important to make our results available as quickly as possible. It’s a dilemma we have to live with.


Angela Bearth is a research assistant in the Consumer Behaviour group. She conducted the surveys mentioned above together with Michael Siegrist, Larissa Luchsinger and Christina Hartmann.