When mildly ill, individuals who reflect on the potential consequences of their behavior are less likely to go to holiday gatherings and events.
As COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are spreading rapidly along with the seasonal cold, new research has shed light on how individuals decide whether to attend events when they have mild symptoms, such as a stuffy nose.
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that when individuals take a moment to consider the consequences of their behavior, they tend to choose options that impose fewer risks on others. Additionally, the study of 13,000 participants found that almost universally, people value others’ health and well-being. The findings were published in the journal PNAS Nexus.
The research was conducted at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and presented participants with 3 hypothetical scenarios. In one, the participant owned a small restaurant and were considering reducing capacity due to COVID-19. In another, they were supposed to meet with 50 friends for a birthday party after months of isolation, but their government cautioned that gatherings of 10 or more were unwise. In the final scenario, the participant considered whether to cancel a planned Thanksgiving celebration with 30 family members, including older adults and young children.
Before making their decision, half of the subjects were asked to pause and practice “structured reflection,” a technique designed to help people be more mindful of their own values. The participants asked themselves 2 questions contrasting how their decision would impact them personally versus how it would impact public health.
For example, in the Thanksgiving scenario, they asked, “How much should your decision be influenced by the likelihood that COVID-19 may spread among family members?” and “How much should your decision be influenced by your satisfaction of spending time with family members?”
Across all countries, ages, cultures, and political parties, nearly all participants gave at least equal weight to others’ well-being.
“That’s encouraging,” researcher Leaf Van Boven, PhD, in a press release. “Our study and others suggest it is a universal human tendency that people believe they should care about how their behaviors affects other people.”
Participants in the structured reflection group were significantly more likely to say they would cancel the Thanksgiving gathering, the study found. The other scenarios had similar results, with the structured reflection group more likely to exercise caution and minimize public health risks.
Van Boven said techniques such as structured reflection could be applied to achieve various public health goals in which personal benefit, by human nature, tends to overshadow broader public health concerns. As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and the holiday season is here, personal responsibility will be increasingly important.
“In many ways, the pandemic put into stark relief the degree to which we rely on people voluntarily making decisions not only for their own betterment but also for the betterment of others,” Van Boven said in the press release.
He noted that as soon as mask mandates were lifted, most individuals stopped wearing them regardless of how much COVID-19 was circulating. He added, however, that social connections are also vital, so sometimes it may be worth the risks to host or attend a gathering while taking precautions such as opening windows, masking, or limiting the group size.
The most important thing is to take the time to weigh those risks and benefits, Van Boven said.
“I would encourage everyone to develop a habit of asking themselves when they are considering any sort of large social gathering: What is the risk you might impose on other people, and is the benefit of the gathering worth the risk?” Van Boven said.
God the sniffles? Here’s how to make the right decision about holiday gatherings. News release. CU Boulder; November 15, 2022. Accessed December 13, 2022. https://www.colorado.edu/today/2022/11/15/got-sniffles-heres-how-make-right-decision-about-holiday-gatherings