The Effects of Media-Induced Fear on the Health Belief Model and COVID Safety Measures: Understanding the Effects of Time and Critical Thinking

GREGOIRE, Yany | $23,675

Quebec HEC Montréal 2021 SSHRC

Issues to Be Addressed. The current research addresses three specific issues. First, we seek to understand how the exposure to social media affects individuals’ fear of Covid-19, which in turn conditions their perceptions of risks and benefits as well as their adoption of safety measures. Our research builds on a validated model of behavioral changethe Health Belief Model (HBM)to understand people’s adoption of vaccines and practice of social distancing. HBM predicts that people are more likely to adopt recommended behaviors if they perceive that they are susceptible to the disease, that the health crisis is serious, and that the benefits of safety measures outweigh their costs. Second, we examine the way critical thinking moderates in different ways (i.e., amplification vs. reduction) the process depicted in our first point. Third, since effective management of the pandemic is a long-lasting phenomenon, we examine the unfolding of our model and the effectiveness of critical thinking over a 12-month period.

Context and Contributions. Effective communications from public health agencies are at the heart of prosocial campaigns. In an era of digital communications, however, their voice is just one of the many that is heard by people. The restriction measures during the pandemic had caused more people to turn to social media for support and information (Harnett, 2020). False claims found on social media could counteract policymakers’ educational efforts by increasing collective uncertainty and fear. In turn, unreasonable fear can increase risk denial, leading some individuals to reject the recommended safety measures. Hence, it is important to understand the effectiveness of media literacy in decreasing media-induced fear. With this context in mind, the current research makes three core contributions to theory and practice.

Contribution 1: Testing the process through which media exposure creates fear, which in turn affects the HBM components and the adoption of safety measures: First, we focus on the mechanism that explains how exposure to Covid-19 content on social media, may generate fear, which in turn influences the components of the HBM (i.e., perceptions of risks, barriers and benefits related to safety measures). Ultimately, these components lead to the adoption of safety measures (i.e., vaccines and social distancing). In a few words, our core contribution is to test, in a longitudinal manner, the sequence “social media exposure fear HBM components safety measures,” which constitutes the bedrock of our research.

Contribution 2: Understanding the moderation effect of critical thinking. We examine how critical thinking moderates the linkages of the suggested media- and fear-based process: Media literacy training was shown to develop critical thinking, which then acts as a defense mechanism against unhealthy behaviors by reinforcing the cognitive route of decision making. We expect that critical thinking will buffer the path between “social media exposure” and “fear” whereas it will amplify the paths between “fear” and the HBM components. Based on these predictions, our second key contribution is to show the complex role that critical thinking plays as a tool for policymakers.

Contribution 3: Examining the longitudinal unfolding of our model and testing the sustainability of critical thinking. Longitudinal studies are often considered the gold standard for field studies. We test our model with a longitudinal design, spanning over a 12-month period, that addresses two under-researched gaps. First, our longitudinal designs will help to understand the effects of time and “trigger events” on the variables of our model. Second, our studies will help understand the sustainability of critical thinking over time.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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