Risk Creep: A COVID-19 Longitudinal Field Study
31 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2022
Date Written: September 15, 2022
How do norms evolve to influence behavior over time? The global COVID-19 pandemic introduced immense uncertainty; six months into the pandemic witnessed no foreseeable ending and no available vaccine. Given that people could not quarantine indefinitely, they needed to develop new social norms, rules of appropriate behavior. Across eight weeks, we tracked the behavior of university students as they returned from lockdown to campus at an east coast university. Students’ behavior is associated with both 1) social learning (what they saw others doing) and 2) experiential learning (reflecting on the perceived risk associated with their own past behavior). Social learning affects three types of discretionary activities outside of the home: exercising, socializing in smaller groups, and attending larger events. Controlling for a number of factors, regression results show that the more students see or hear about others doing one of these activities, the more likely they are to engage in that activity the following week. We call this gradual increase in precarious activity, “risk creep.” A creeping tolerance for risk for two of these activities also occurs within an experiential learning paradigm. Specifically, the riskier students judge their prior week’s behavior (which, on average, had little negative consequence), the more likely they are to leave their home the following week for exercise and large events. Together our results suggest that norms for discretionary activities evolve over time based on both social learning cues and experiential reflection of risk and consequences.
How do norms evolve? During the pandemic, post-lockdown and pre-vaccine, it was not clear which behaviors were appropriate. Across eight weeks, we tracked people’s behaviors and perceptions to understand how risk perceptions, sensemaking, and decisions evolved over time. First, we establish a record of behavior outside of the home during this time. Second, we analyze correlates between these behaviors, observed norms, and perceptions of risk over time. Behavior is associated with both 1) social learning (what they saw others doing) and 2) experiential learning (reflecting on the perceived risk associated with their own past behavior). Both social and experiential learning are associated with a gradual increase in precarious activity, what we call “risk creep.”
Keywords: COVID-19 Norms, Risk Perception, Decision-Making
JEL Classification: D8, D80
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation