Understanding the Impact of Norms and Emotions on Social Distancing during COVID-19

Researchers at MSU’s Health & Risk Communication Center receive a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation to study the relationships among social norms and risk reduction behaviors during COVID-19

Researchers in the Health and Risk Communication Center at Michigan State University are using communication modeling and analysis of social media to examine the dynamic relationships between social norms, emotions and COVID-19 risk reduction behaviors, using social media data and self-report surveys.

This study, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Decision, Risk and Management Science Program, aims to understand the dynamic relationships among social norms, discrete emotions such as anger and guilt, and risk reduction behaviors including social distancing.

“The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic and people’s response to it are changing quickly as information environment, climate of opinion and policy environment changes,” said Dr. Monique Turner, Chair of MSU’s Department of Communication and principal investigator of the study. “Daily attention to the news and social media posts is more commonplace during crises, and this volume of exposure to information affects how we see and feel about the world; ultimately, it drives what we do.”

This study uses the team’s advances in communication modeling and analysis of social media to examine the dynamic relationships between social norms, emotions, and COVID-19 risk reduction behaviors, using social media data and self-report surveys conducted during the pandemic (i.e., a rolling cross-sectional survey). As part of the study, researchers will also use computational communication to analyze social media that refers to coronavirus and COVID-19, including millions of Tweets posted by Americans.

“We’re going to be doing a huge social media analysis to see if trends in social media usage can predict people’s risk prevention behaviors,” said Turner. “This project gives us insight into what’s going on in America right now, and how people feel about it.”

She said the team is tracking people’s emotions about a variety of targets, including their reactions to the U.S. President’s handling of the virus, reactions to their own governor’s handling of the virus, emotions about their own risk prevention behaviors, and how they feel about having to wear a mask, among others.

Data was collected over the course of 17 weeks from about 500 Americans per week, and the team finished collecting the data in October with about 9,000 participants total. Already, Turner said they are finding a correlation between mask wearing behaviors and perceptions of how government officials are handling the outbreak of COVID-19.

“Ultimately, this project can serve as the basis for communication efforts to promote behaviors to slow the spread of the disease, and it can explain how social norms change over time,” said Dr. Maria Lapinski, Co-Principal Investigator of the study.

The study is unique, in that the research will represent changes in social norms, emotions and risk prevention behaviors over time. The primary goals of the project are to understand the dynamic effects of social norms and discrete emotions on risk reduction behaviors and to explore how the social norms related to preventive behaviors for COVID-19 may evolve over the course of the pandemic.

The project offers value to social science, by building knowledge regarding the dynamic relationship among social norms, discrete emotions, and risk reduction behaviors over time, extending the theoretical model by utilizing the combined methodology of a rolling cross-sectional survey and social media scraping techniques, and translating the findings for use in communication interventions to promote risk prevention behaviors for COVID-19.

Researchers on the project also include Dr. Winson Peng, a computational scientist in the Department of Communication; Sanguk Lee, Doctoral Student of the Department of Communication; and Youjin Jang, Doctoral Student of the Department of Communication.

To learn more about the Health and Risk Communication Center, visit: https://hrcc.cas.msu.edu

By Melissa Priebe and Youjin Jang

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