Seen and Not Seen: How People Judge Ambiguous Behavior During the COVID-19 Pandemic
51 Pages Posted: 14 Jun 2021 Last revised: 1 Sep 2022
Date Written: August 31, 2022
How do we judge others’ behavior when they are both seen and not seen—when we observe their behavior but not the underlying traits or history that moderate the perceived riskiness of their behavior? We investigate this question in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: How people make sense of, and judge, vaccination-contingent behaviors—behaviors, such as going to the gym or a bar, which are considered to be more or less risky and appropriate, depending on the target’s vaccination status. While decision theoretic models suggest that these judgments should depend on the probability that the target is vaccinated (e.g., the positivity of judgments should increase linearly with the probability of vaccination), in a large-scale preregistered experiment (N = 936) we find that both riskiness and appropriateness judgments deviate substantially from such normative benchmarks. Specifically, when participants judge a stranger’s behavior, without being asked to think about the stranger’s vaccination status, they tend to judge these behaviors similarly positively to behaviors of others who are known to be fully vaccinated. By contrast, when participants are explicitly prompted to think about the vaccination status of others, they do so, leading them to view others more disparagingly, at times even more negatively than what a normative benchmark would imply. More broadly, these results suggest new directions for research on how people respond to risk and ambiguity. We demonstrate that even subtle cues can fundamentally alter what information is “top of mind”, that is, what information is included or excluded when making judgments.
Keywords: COVID-19, pandemic, ambiguity, uncertainty, vaccination status, attributions
JEL Classification: D81, D91, I12, I18
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation