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Optimistic Bias, Risky Behavior, and Social norms: Why college students struggle to assess pandemic risks

Optimistic Bias, Risky Behavior, and Social norms: Why college students struggle to assess pandemic risks

Based on an empirical study among college students, it was found that the presence of friends instead of strangers make participants with high COVID-19 optimistic bias inclined to take more risks

Students are more likely to disregard COVID preventive behaviours when they are among close friends than others Students are more likely to disregard COVID preventive behaviours when they are among close friends than others

In the wake of the devastating second wave of COVID-19 in the country, it is clear that in addition to the vaccines, to control the outbreak, behavioural restrictions are critical.

The government have resorted to many restrictions such as lockdowns, banning of social gatherings, closing offices, putting limitations on public transportation, restricting intra-border travel, suspending international flights, and closing borders of the countries. They have issued advisories to restrict the spread of the virus. 

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These include staying at home, practising physical distancing, avoiding crowded places, following personal hygiene, and cleanliness measures like using hand sanitisers, washing hands repeatedly and wearing masks (Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India, n.d.; World Health Organisation, 2020). Strict compliance with these behavioural restrictions can benefit society at large.  

However, not all individuals, especially college students comply with these required behaviours. These students usually stay in hostels and are hence, likely to disregard or defer the government advisories and keep practising the activities that increase the risk of COVID-19 for themselves and others. 

In fact, risk perception has strong implications for the spread of the pandemic since it can influence individuals' practice of the recommended behaviours. 

The perception that one's own risk is lower than the risk of comparable others is termed as 'optimistic bias'. Using survey data of college students in India, we investigate whether optimistic bias among individuals regarding COVID-19 increases risk-taking behaviour. 

Unrealistic optimism about their health or immune system increases individuals' tendency to perceive the risk lower than others, leading to risk-taking or health avoidance behaviour. Our study further examines if the risk-taking behaviour will be different for different cohorts such as relatives, friends, others. Moreover, it investigates if social norms encourage risk-avoidance behaviours. 

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Based on an empirical study among college students, we found that the presence of friends instead of strangers make participants with high COVID-19 optimistic bias inclined to take more risks, that is to say that risk-taking behaviour will be higher for close contacts (friends, neighbours) than for distant contact (unknown stranger). 

Thus, students are more likely to disregard preventive behaviours when they are among close friends than others. However, we found preventive behavioural norms followed by peers minimises the risk-taking behaviour among participants with high optimistic bias i.e. high optimistic bias individuals will indulge in less COVID-19 risky behaviour if primed with the social norms that encourage risk avoidance practices. 

Our findings thus offer important implications for policymakers to minimise the transmission of the disease among college students and suggests that facilitating risk-avoidance norms will minimise risk-taking behaviour for students who usually think that they are less vulnerable than others.  


(Prof. Himanshu Rai, Director, IIM Indore; Prof. Sushanta K Mishra, Dean-Programme & Faculty, IIM Indore & Dr. Shanu Shukla, Academic Associate, IIM Indore)