Young, less educated men should be focus of COVID-19 health messaging

January 26, 2021.

Young men who are less educated than average are more resistant to warnings about social distancing. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

As governments develop and enact policies to encourage the public to social distance and stop the spread of the coronavirus, Canadian researchers have determined which groups are least likely to follow safety mandates — and which groups public health messaging should target in particular.

In a new study published in the January edition of the Canadian Psychology journal, a team of researchers examined the intentions of 1,055 Canadian adults to follow government recommendations and social distancing. They also tested their COVID-related fear control responses, which are negative and defensive reactions used as coping mechanisms in threatening situations.

“In terms of demographics, females, people who are more educated and older individuals intend to physically distance more, are actually physically distancing more and are reacting less defensively to government messages,” Alex Lithopoulos, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and the lead author of the study, told The Academic Times.

In the context of COVID-19, these groups showed high levels of perceived efficacy, meaning how effective people think social distancing is and how confident they are in being able to socially distance, and perceived threat, or how susceptible people think they are to catching the virus and how severe they think the consequences will be if they do contract it. 

The study concluded that people with high levels of perceived threat and perceived efficacy had the greatest intentions to social distance, though perceived efficacy was found to be the strongest predictor. The researchers recommended that efficacy should be the main focus of public health interventions.

These interventions should specifically target men, younger people and those who are less educated, the researchers noted, as they may be reacting more defensively to messaging and social distancing less frequently, and should also aim to increase both perceived threat and efficacy, the authors said. 

Lithopoulos said that understanding the predictors of social distancing is important to craft broader public health messaging interventions. 

Perceived efficacy appeared to be even more important than perceived threat as a predictor of a person’s likelihood to social distance, he said. 

Notably, this study was the first to demonstrate an interaction between perceived efficacy and threat in the context of an epidemic or pandemic. 

“It is important to understand why some people have been (or have not been) physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to create effective public health messaging to slow virus transmission,” the authors said in the study.

Lithopoulos explained that in times of crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, people assess their overall level of efficacy, which consists of response efficacy, meaning their confidence that a recommended behavior can prevent a threat, and self-efficacy, or their confidence in their ability to do the recommended behavior.

The researchers measured participants’ self-efficacy through statements that gauged their perceptions of their ability to follow official recommendations for preventing COVID-19 after the Canadian government ordered social distancing, such as, “I was able to do the recommended responses.” The authors also used statements about participants’ perceptions of these government recommendations, such as, “I believed that the recommended responses would work in preventing COVID-19,” to measure response efficacy. 

If individuals have low levels of efficacy, they won’t be able to adequately handle the threat, Lithopolous said, causing them to engage in fear control responses such as denial and believing that the issue is overblown. But if they have high levels of efficacy, they will engage in danger control responses, such as forming an intention to do the recommended behavior and eventual compliance with the behavior.

In previous epidemics, women, highly educated individuals and older people were more likely to physically distance, according to the paper. Similarly, in this study, older adults, women and more educated individuals generally had greater intentions and engaged in more physical distancing.

Older adults, women, more educated individuals and people with higher levels of perceived efficacy also had lower scores for fear control responses. And among people with low perceived efficacy, women had lower scores for fear control responses than men.

The researchers collected the data in May 2020 through an online survey. Participants were asked about their perception of COVID-19 after the Canadian government ordered social distancing in their area, including their view of the threat of the virus and how they perceived their own ability to follow government recommendations.

The survey also included questions about how often the participants physically distanced from others, and whether they believed COVID-19 was being exaggerated by the government. The study was cross-sectional and correlational, and the authors recommended that future research on this topic use longitudinal or experimental designs.

Some governments are already targeting perceived threat by discussing the dangers of the virus through their COVID-19 responses. The Canadian government, for instance, has recently attempted to reach younger people, who now make up the majority of new COVID-19 cases in the country.

This practice of using a more segmented approach to improve social distancing results should continue in all countries still fighting the coronavirus, Lithopoulos said, including by being honest about people’s susceptibility to catching the virus and the severity of its consequences.

“We specifically recommend that interventions raise perceived threat and efficacy levels, and that interventions especially target males, younger people, and individuals who are less educated. It is hoped that our recommendations are implemented by governments as soon as possible,” the authors said.

The study, “Predicting Physical Distancing in the Context of COVID-19: A Test of the Extended Parallel Process Model Among Canadian Adults” was published in the January edition of the Canadian Psychology journal. Alex Lithopoulos, of the University of Victoria, was the lead author. Sam Liu, Chun-Qing Zhang and Ryan E. Rhodes, all of the University of Victoria, served as co-authors.

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