Psychology expert: Anticipated negative emotions around COVID-19 infection powerful, affect preventive behavior

Anticipated negative emotions about getting the COVID-19 virus are more intense than the negative emotions for those who experience an infection, according to research done by a Grand Valley psychology expert.

Those anticipated negative emotions can often have an impact on preventive behaviors such as vaccination and booster intentions, Amanda Dillard, professor of psychology, concluded from the research.

Dillard specializes in studying how emotion and risk perception motivate health behaviors. The study's results were recently published in the journal Social Science & Medicine in a paper that Dillard co-authored.

A key takeaway from this research is that when people think about negative events that could occur, they tend to overestimate their emotional reactions and respond accordingly, Dillard said. 

A person smiles in a posed photo.
Amanda Dillard, professor of psychology, specializes in studying how emotions influence health behaviors.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

"The studies really show the importance of anticipated emotions and how they are tied to behavior," Dillard said. "We don't have to necessarily experience something to be fearful of it, and that anticipated fear or other negative emotions can be a good motivator of behavior."

The research involved two studies done during the height of the pandemic in 2021 to either predict their emotions to a future COVID-19 infection or recall their emotions from having one. One group studied was about 200 college students, the other about 400 general adults.

The results from both studies showed that those who were predicting how they would feel if they were infected in the future anticipated more negative emotions than those recalling how they felt around the time of a past infection, Dillard said. 

Researchers asked about four emotions, Dillard said: fear, guilt, anger and regret. Of those emotions, anger or fear tended to be more prominent in the research, she said. 

Noting the timing of the research during the pandemic, anger was an understandable emotion, Dillard said.

"At this point, people have hunkered down. They're saying, 'I have done all this work to stay away from people, having to sacrifice the things that I love to do in my life. I've done all the right things and now I've gotten this,'" Dillard said.

Dillard said the negative emotions and worries about the severity of getting the virus were higher among the general adults, indicating that this group – which had an average age of mid-30s – tended to feel more threatened than the college students.

This work is all part of Dillard's research emphasis on "impact bias," which shows that people who think about potential future events tend to overestimate their emotions, whether the event is negative, like a potential illness, or positive, such as anticipating how long one will be happy after reaching a milestone.

Studying impact bias when it comes to health, and particularly in how it ties to behavior, is an area ripe for more research, Dillard said. 


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