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The Presentation of COVID-19 Data Affects Perceived Threat Level

One study found people were more likely to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously when they saw the overall number of infections, as opposed to being presented with only new daily cases.

When it comes to taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, presentation is everything.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, people have been overwhelmed with data. Running tallies of new infections and overall caseload are used to guide everything from policy decisions to personal choices.

A new study, conducted by U of T Scarborough, found that presenting COVID-19 case data differently affected how risky people viewed the pandemic.

The investigators showed study participants either stock data (the total number of cases since the pandemic began), or flow data (the new daily case count). They asked the participants to rate the current level of pandemic risk and how it would affect their behavior, such as willingness to wear masks, socially distance, or dine in restaurants.

The research team hypothesized that since day-to-day case counts can vary, seeing the stock count would make the participants more likely to take the pandemic seriously and reduce risky behavior. “When you see a number that keeps rising, it goes without saying that it grabs your attention and makes you think about your own risk of infection,” said Sam Maglio, an associate professor in U and T Scarborough’s department of management and an author of the study.

Indeed, seeing the consistent increase in cases led the participants viewing stock counts to rank the pandemic as more serious. Conversely, the fluctuating number of new daily infections caused people to judge the state of the pandemic as less severe.

When people saw the daily case count decreasing, they were more likely to take personal risks, such as dining in restaurants, than the participants who were shown the ever-increasing overall caseload.

The investigators wrote, “the choice of how to present pandemic data can lead people to different conclusions about risk and can have practical consequences for risky behavior.”

The results seem to suggest that presenting people with the overall case tally will cause them to take the pandemic more seriously. However, when given with data that is too lofty to comprehend, such as the millions of COVID-19 cases to date, it seems abstract and people become desensitized. Maglio recommended that people be shown a stock number in addition to a real-life example of someone hospitalized with COVID-19.

The investigators concluded that greater care should be taken when presenting data. Even though facts and figures may seem objective, presenting data even slightly different changes the public’s interpretation.