News Release

Underestimating people’s COVID concerns undermines cooperation

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Cornell University

ITHACA, N.Y. – Misperceptions of marginalized and disadvantaged communities’ level of concern regarding COVID-19, as well as other issues such as climate change, constitutes a form of social misinformation that may undermine cooperation and trust needed to address collective problems, according to new Cornell-led research.

“If we misperceive who is most concerned about pressing threats like COVID or climate change, we might fail to engage the communities that are being most impacted,” said Jonathon Schuldt, associate professor of communication and corresponding author of the paper. “And science itself may suffer in a number of ways if the groups that are most affected and most concerned about these issues are underrepresented in science and policy circles.”

The paper published in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Co-authors include Neil Lewis Jr., assistant professor of communication and Peter Enns, professor of government.

This research built off of previous published work from Schuldt that found minority and lower-income respondents reported the highest levels of climate change concern, but the American public misperceived them as among the least concerned.

For this newer work, Schuldt and his team analyzed more than 1 million responses from mid-February to late August 2020, from both national polling and their own original surveys on pandemic risk perceptions and social biases.

The research found group differences in concern were moderate in the first three months of the pandemic, but by August, Asian, Hispanic and Black respondents were approximately twice as likely to report being “very worried” (the highest concern level) as white respondents or other groups.

But in gauging the public’s perception of groups’ levels of concern, the researchers saw divergence from the previous work and found that while underestimation of groups’ concern was evident, it was not as strong as with climate change.

Notably, Hispanics/Latino, Black and Asian people in the U.S. were perceived as significantly more concerned about the coronavirus than white people in the U.S., contrary to what was observed in the environmental context. Part of the concern among Asian respondents, the paper suggests, may reflect the violence and prejudice they have endured during the pandemic.

“I think this work teaches us that you have to study perceptions of group concerns issue by issue,” Schuldt said. “It’s not the case that the public thinks minority and lower-income communities care less about any issue. For COVID but not climate change, the public recognizes that the most affected groups are more concerned, but in some cases, they still underestimate those concerns."

For additional information, see this Cornell Chronicle story.

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