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Study Shows Relationships are Key Influence in Response to COVID-19

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A study co-authored by a risk perception and public policy expert at Cal State Fullerton shows that close family and friend relationships are a key influence in how people respond to government restrictions related to COVID-19.

Justin Tucker, associate professor of political science at Cal State Fullerton, and Matt Miles, professor of political science at Brigham Young University-Idaho, found relationships to be the strongest information channel for shaping public opinion on policies related to COVID-19. 

The professors surveyed more than 2,000 people across the country in June 2020 on their support of policies related to COVID-19. They found that people who have a close relationship with someone who contracted the virus, even in asymptomatic cases, had a significantly higher perception of risk than those who did not know anyone affected.

Even when the cases are mild, being close to the virus gives context, increases information and changes people’s perception of how dangerous the virus is, Tucker said.

“If they had not had these close relationships, I don’t think that they would have trusted the information they have been presented about the virus,” Tucker said. “It’s the relationship that changes the trustworthiness of the information.”

The professors found close relationships influenced respondents’ opinions on policies even more than the political party they identified with. Survey results showed people were more likely to support government restrictions if they knew friends and family members who contracted COVID-19 regardless of political views or other variables.

“Most government agencies assume that there are groups of people who will always support or oppose policies,” Tucker said. “When trustworthy and clear information is not available, people will draw upon their relationships as they build opinions.”

Similarly, researchers found that people whose family members were financially hit by business closures at the time were less likely to support policies impacting the economy such as closing bars, salons and churches.

However, respondents were not influenced by acquaintances in the same way, Tucker said. The survey shared a story with respondents about someone whose spouse contracted COVID-19 and died, but that story did not have the same effect on respondents’ perception of the virus, Tucker said.

Tucker said the most effective way to emphasize the risks of COVID-19 is to have COVID-19 patients speak about their treatment experiences with family members and friends. In comparison to government agencies or media outlets reporting the risks of COVID-19, personal stories do a better job of destigmatizing the virus and increasing the spread of factual information, he said.

“You can’t fake the impacts of real connections and real personal stories,” Tucker said. “As the surge continues, I anticipate that more people will know others who are infected.”

The national survey, conducted through sampling platform Lucid, was sponsored by CSUF’s Center for Public Policy where Tucker serves as director.

Kendra Morales