The pandemic has reopened the debate about the love or hate relationship with the media. In the last year in fact, the confrontation heated up between those who believe that the media have a valuable role in helping people understand the health emergency and protective measures and those who, instead, consider the media useless or even guilty of causing unnecessary alarm. Among those that underline the importance of the media is also a research group, coordinated by the University of Trento, that investigated the link between the media, concern for the disease and the perception of the risk of infection with the coronavirus.
The research involved a sample of 547 people residing in Italy, the United Kingdom and Austria. The results were illustrated in the scientific journal “Frontiers in Psychology”. Based on the study, the concern for the risk of infection and the perception of risk would be closely linked to information received from the media on the epidemic, and would prepare the population to adopt measures and behaviours to protect personal and collective health.
"We have decided to examine the processes behind the decision to adopt self-protective measures, which are essential for effective communication during the pandemic. For the efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus to be successful, it is crucial that citizens respect safety measures", explains Nicolao Bonini, professor of Consumer behaviour psychology and director of the Consumer Neuroscience Laboratory (NcLab) of the Department of Economics and Management of the University of Trento.
The study measured the parameters relating to the perception of the risk of contracting the infection and the effective commitment of the population of the three countries to comply with self-protection measures.
He continues: "The analysis shows that the greater the negative emotional reaction (e.g. worry) towards the coronavirus, the greater the perception of risk and, therefore, the more citizens are available to engage in self-protective behaviours. These findings may seem trivial. Much less obvious, however, is the result that possibly "marginal" factors are able to influence emotional reactions and subsequently the implementation of protective behaviours through an increase of risk perception. For example, the use of a communication strategy centered on deaths (rather than on healed patients) induces greater concern and greater perception of risk and, indirectly, greater willingness to implement protective behaviours. Note how this factor makes it possible to predict protective behaviour more accurately than other apparently more relevant parameters, such as, for example, trust in institutions or the evaluation of the effectiveness of government policies".
This line of investigation into the role of public communication on protective behaviours in the pandemic will be further investigated in the 2021-2022 period thanks to a grant provided within the "Covid-19" University Call, which is one of the research actions promoted by University of Trento in 2020.
"With the help of the tools provided by the Consumer Neuroscience Laboratory of the Department of Economics and Management of the University of Trento, we will be able to measure the role of emotions (even when felt unconsciously) and not only that of emotions self-reported in a questionnaire. We will be able, for example, to measure changes in heartbeat, skin sweating or pupillary dilation based on the type of numerical format used in the media campaign”, explains Bonini, who will also be the coordinator of the project.
The results of this type of study are of interest to various stakeholders. Governments, that can leverage this knowledge to design more effective action to contain the pandemic. But also for those who care about respectful and effective communication that can be easily understood by the population.
And while the pandemic continues to rage, can any suggestions be drawn from the study to contain the contagion? Bonini gives a positive answer: "Yes, in addition to the key role of the type of communication, we have found that the comparison with less serious epidemics such as, for example, the flu, can determine, by assimilation, an underestimation of the Covid-19 risk".
About the article
The article "Worry, perceived threat and media communication as predictors of self-protective behaviours during the COVID-19 outbreak in Europe" was published in the journal "Frontiers in Psychology" and is part of the Special Issue "Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19): Psychological Reactions to the Pandemic". Authors are: Martina Vacondio (PhD student, Department of Psychology, University of Klagenfurt, Austria); Giulia Priolo (PhD student, Department of Psychology and Cognitive Sciences, University of Trento), Stephan Dickert (Professor of Marketing, Department of Marketing, School of Business and Management, Queen Mary University of London, United Kingdom and Department of Psychology, University of Klagenfurt, Austria) and Nicolao Bonini (professor of Consumer Behavior Psychology, Department of Economics and Management, University of Trento).
Published online on 16 February 2021, the article is available in Open access