Measuring Realistic and Symbolic Threats of COVID-19 and Their Unique Impacts on Well-Being and Adherence to Public Health Behaviors

Frank J. Kachanoff*, Yochanan E. Bigman, Kyra Kapsaskis, Kurt Gray

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

104 Scopus citations

Abstract

COVID-19 threatens lives, livelihoods, and civic institutions. Although restrictive public health behaviors such as social distancing help manage its impact, these behaviors can further sever our connections to people and institutions that affirm our identities. Three studies (N = 1,195) validated a brief 10-item COVID-19 Threat Scale that assesses (1) realistic threats to physical or financial safety and (2) symbolic threats to one’s sociocultural identity. Studies reveal that both realistic and symbolic threats predict higher distress and lower well-being and demonstrate convergent validity with other measures of threat sensitivity. Importantly, the two kinds of threats diverge in their relationship to restrictive public health behaviors: Realistic threat predicted greater self-reported adherence, whereas symbolic threat predicted less self-reported adherence to social disconnection behaviors. Symbolic threat also predicted using creative ways to affirm identity even in isolation. Our findings highlight how social psychological theory can be leveraged to understand and predict people’s behavior in pandemics.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)603-616
Number of pages14
JournalSocial Psychological and Personality Science
Volume12
Issue number5
DOIs
StatePublished - Jul 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2020.

Keywords

  • COVID-19
  • psychological health
  • public health
  • realistic threat
  • scale validation
  • symbolic threat

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