COVID-19 fear causes rigid thinking, study suggests

Feb. 2, 2021

Fear in response to COVID-19 causes people to think more rigidly. It also and makes it harder for them to recognize misinformation and more likely to spread it, according to new research published this week in the journal Frontiers in Communication, according to a news release from the University of Texas at Austin.

In the study conducted during the early months of the pandemic, researchers examined the influence of fear of COVID-19 on several social and cognitive factors among 565 adults living in Italy and the U.S. The greater effect coronavirus fears had on an individual, the more likely they were to: 

· misidentify and spread false or misleading information

·  accept unverified information and share it, regardless of accuracy

·  believe untrue existential statements to be profound

The researchers also analyzed participants’ propensity for polarized or “black-or-white” thinking and xenophobia, among other factors. The study showed that fear of the coronavirus influenced participants to engage in such rigid forms of thinking, and individuals who scored high on the polarization scale were less likely to detect misinformation and more likely to have poor problem-solving and analytical skills.

Participants in the study responded to an extensive online survey conducted during March and April of 2020 at the peak of the initial spread of the virus. In addition to queries about their beliefs and experiences with COVID-19, respondents answered questions about the accuracy of real and fake news articles created by the researchers. They were also tested on their likelihood to overestimate the value of certain statements, they solved puzzles, and they answered logic problems to test their reasoning skills.

Fear of COVID-19 also had some positive effects, according to the study. Greater fear was associated with participants seeking out information about the virus, efforts to avoid infection, and a desire to share real news with others.

This research was conducted in collaboration with the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, Italy.

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