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Knowing More About a Virus Threat May Not Be Enough

People who believe they are highly knowledgeable about a new infectious disease may also be more likely to think they don’t know enough, resulting in little satisfaction, according to a new study published in the journal Risk Analysis.

In the case of this study, the infectious disease was the Zika virus, but the authors say the findings could apply to the recent novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

“The Zika virus and the coronavirus have important things in common. In both cases, they are shrouded in uncertainty and have received a lot of media attention. Our research looks at how people seek and process information when there is so much uncertainty,” said Dr. Shelly Hovick, co-author of the study and assistant professor of communication at The Ohio State University.

“Novel risks like Zika or coronavirus may make some people react differently than well-known risks like cancer or the flu. Even if the data suggest someone is at low risk, the lack of information may make some people feel they are at high risk.”

The Zika virus is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, but it can also be passed from men and women to their sexual partners and through blood transfusions. Although most people infected with Zika don’t show symptoms, pregnant women with the virus have a higher likelihood of their child being born with a specific birth defect.

“We found that the more people thought they knew, the more they realized they didn’t know enough,” said Austin Hubner, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in communication at Ohio State.

“With the Zika virus, even the experts themselves didn’t know much at the time. That’s the same thing we’re seeing with the coronavirus, and that’s scary for people who believe they are at risk.”

For the study, the research team conducted an online survey of 494 people of childbearing age living in Florida in December 2016. Floridians were recruited for the study because the state had the highest number of locally transmitted cases of Zika in the U.S. at the time.

In the survey, respondents were asked a variety of questions about their knowledge and attitudes toward seeking information about Zika, how they processed what they learned about the virus, and their plans for seeking more information.

One of the key findings was that, with limited information about Zika available, more knowledge was not that comforting.

As expected, participants who were pregnant or hoping to get pregnant (and men whose wives were in those situations) felt more at risk from Zika and were more likely to say they were afraid of Zika.

In addition, participants who felt they didn’t know enough about Zika didn’t intend to spend more time than others seeking information. That was probably because they realized that there wasn’t more information available, Hovick said.

However, they did spend more time processing the information they had heard and were more likely to agree with statements like “After I encounter information about Zika, I am likely to stop and think about it.”

The results suggest it is important for public health agencies to continuously update the public, Hovick said. Those who are worried or concerned about risks such as Zika are likely to process the information they encounter deeply, but they may not seek information on their own.

Participants were also more likely to intend to seek information about Zika if they believed other people expected them to do so. For example, they were more likely to want to search for information if they agreed with statements like “People in my life whose opinions I value seek information about Zika.”

“We should aim not just to provide information, but also shape messages that encourage people to stay on top of the situation, particularly in high-uncertainty environments,” Hovick said. “You have to make it clear that seeking more knowledge is something that their friends and family expect of them.”

Hovick said they have considered trying to replicate the study with the current coronavirus outbreak, but that Zika virus was slower developing.

“The coronavirus outbreak is moving so much more quickly. I’m not sure we could get the approvals and conduct the study in time,” she said.

Source: Ohio State University

Knowing More About a Virus Threat May Not Be Enough

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Knowing More About a Virus Threat May Not Be Enough. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 10 Mar 2020 (Originally: 10 Mar 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 10 Mar 2020
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