Mass Fear Decreases When Measures to Contain Pandemics are Effective | Michael Bechtel


Mass fear is affected more strongly by how effective policy measures such as lockdowns or contact restrictions to contain a pandemic are – more so than by the measures themselves, researchers writing in the ‘Journal of Political Experimental Science’ find. Partisanship does not affect how mass fear responds to pandemic policy.

If infection numbers drop significantly over the course of a pandemic in response to policy measures, this lowers people’s sense of fear and panic-related behaviour more strongly than the infection rates and the measures themselves. That is the result of a study by Professor Dr Michael M. Bechtel, member of the Cluster of Excellence ECONtribute and Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cologne, Professor Dr William O’Brochta (Louisiana Tech University), and Professor Dr Margit Tavits (Washington University in St. Louis), which has recently been published in the Journal of Experimental Political Science.

To explore the impact of political measures on mass fear during a pandemic, the researchers interviewed almost 5,500 participants in the United States in the spring of 2020 as part of a survey experiment mimicking the COVID-19 pandemic. Respondents were shown progressions of a wave of infections and asked to rate how scared they were using a variety of questions for each scenario. In each case, the researchers varied how severe the outbreak was, how quickly and strongly policymakers responded, and how infection numbers evolved two weeks later.

Effective measures significantly reduce fear

The result: participants’ anxiety levels increased by an average of two to eight percentage points with more severe infection outbreaks. How quickly and with which measures policy makers reacted hardly influenced fear and related behaviour such as panic buying. Even drastic measures such as lockdowns were accepted by broad majorities. This contrasts with the highly visible and partly violent protests where minorities repeatedly expressed their fierce opposition to COVID-19 measures. The general population, however, had little interest in the invasiveness of the policy response. Their primary concern was with the policies’ impact: if infections fell two weeks after the political measures were in effect, mass fear dropped by a good third. Thus, the results show that mass fear is primarily influenced by the actual effectiveness of political measures.

Political orientation does not affect political effect on fear

It did not matter how much participants knew about the virus or which political party they identified with. Although Republicans remained more sceptical of COVID-19 measures than Democrats, they exhibited similar patterns in how pandemic policy affects fear. ‘This consensus across partisan divides can incentivize opposing political sides to work together to produce an effective response which adds to citizens’ wellbeing and social stability,’ said Michael Bechtel from the Cluster of Excellence ECONtribute and the Cologne Center for Comparative Politics at the University of Cologne. According to the research team, implementing effective policies is fundamental to limiting anti-democratic populism and strengthening trust in political institutions. ‘Crises can only be effectively dealt with if policies effectively reduce fear among people,’ Bechtel added.

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Carolin Jackermeier
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Prof. Dr. Michael Bechtel
ECONtribute, University of Cologne
Tel. +49 221 470 2852