How technology can help reduce risky behaviour around the virus

Image: RTÉ Brainstorm
Jun 19 2020 Posted: 09:30 IST

Author: Dr Chris Noone, School of Psychology and and James Green, University of Limerick

Analysis: a new online tool allows you to estimate and evaluate your risk of getting and spreading Covid-19

The search for an effective Covid-19 vaccine continues, but it will most likely be 2021 before one is widely available. This means that we need to maintain the behaviours that reduce the spread of the virus as we move through the phases of Ireland's roadmap to reopening society. Developing ways of supporting and motivating people to keep their distance from others, wash their hands correctly and self-isolate where necessary will help to slow the transmission of Covid-19.

This is why our team of behavioural scientists from all over the world has developed an online tool called Your Covid-19 Risk that allows you to estimate your risk of contracting and spreading Covid-19. It also gives advice specific to you about reducing your risk. The tool has already been used tens of thousands of times internationally and is now available now available in Ireland. Here's why we think this tool can help you and how findings from behavioural science informed its development.

Do we know our own risk?

Humans are not good at judging their risk of experiencing things that can damage their health so we tend to overestimate our chances of uncommon health conditions and risks. We also underestimate the likelihood of common health conditions and risks. We are particularly poor at dealing with information about risk communicated through numbers. For example, people tend to overestimate their chance of contracting a disease when told that there is a one in 12 chance of this happening, compared to when they are told that there is a 10 in 120 chance of this happening, even though both risks are exactly the same!

We only need to look to the last pandemic that reached Ireland to see how poorly we tend to guess risks – and how underestimating risks can stop people from doing things which can keep them safe. During the swine flu outbreak, research carried out in the UK showed that many people believed that they would not catch it. People who thought that the risk of catching swine flu was exaggerated were much less likely to do recommended protective behaviours . This shows how important it will be for people to be aware of their risk of getting Covid-19 as more and more people spend time in public places.

How do we estimate risks?

Why do we tend to make mistakes when we work out risks? Psychologists describe three ways that people tend to judge their chance of getting a disease or experiencing other dangers to their health. The first way involves using the information available to us from research, experts, the news or other sources to make an educated guess about our risk. For example, many of us now tune in to the daily briefings from the Department of Health to hear from experts about Covid-19.

The second way involves relying primarily on the emotions we experience when considering a threat to our health to inform how at risk we think we are. For example, those who experience more anxiety when thinking about the pandemic are more likely to consider themselves at risk of getting Covid-19.

The third way involves relying on our instinctive reaction when we first hear about a health threat. Some people's reaction when Covid-19 first reached Ireland in February may have been "well, that won’t affect me!" while others may have had a gut feeling that they would contract the virus at some point. Clearly, there is a lot of room for error in each of these strategies. Developing ways of ensuring that people make use of correct and objective information about health risks is an important goal for public health.

What does Your Covid-19 Risk actually do?

To produce a more accurate estimate of your risk, our tool asks you some questions about things including social distancing and hand-washing, as well as background information (eg age, gender, occupation, country). These are combined to produce personal ratings of both your risk of catching Covid-19, and the risk of you passing it on if you catch it.

We are lucky that only one in two people that catch Covid-19 will pass it on to another person right now in Ireland. Back in March, each person with Covid-19 passed it on to an average of three other people. If we keep this rate of new infections low, we will be able to continue with the re-opening, and be well placed for a second wave, if this occurs.

But accurate information about risks is not enough. We also need to make sure that knowing your risk of Covid-19 motivates you to do things that will be effective in lowering your risk. We know that people differ in how much they stick to the guidelines on social distancing and hand-washing. This makes it important to deliver specific information about protective behaviour to people based on what they are already doing – something psychologists often call "tailoring". For example, some may be more likely to stick to social distancing guidelines if they are reminded of how this will protect others. Others may be more likely to stick to social distancing guidelines if they are reminded of how this will protect themselves.

Behavioural science has a key role to play in responding to the pandemic and we hope that we have shown the value of improving how people consider their risk of contracting and spreading the virus. Check out our online tool to assess your own risk and get tailored advice on how to lower it.

Marketing and Communications Office