Knowing about racial disparities in Covid outcomes reduces White Americans’ concern and support for safety precautions

By guest blogger Emma L. Barratt

In many countries, including the United Kingdom and United States, people from non-White communities have been hardest hit by Covid-19. Those from non-White communities generally have less access to good healthcare, are more likely to be essential workers, and are more likely to die from Covid than their White counterparts.

And though many of us are aware of this, new research suggests that within the White demographic, simply hearing the reasons for these facts may be enough to make Covid seem like less of a threat, and reduce support for public health measures.

In the first study, the team from the University of Georgia, US, looked at how White US residents’ perception of Covid racial disparities was related to their fear of Covid and support for Covid-centric safety precautions.

In September 2020, the researchers asked 498 White adult participants across 48 US states whether they felt White people or people of colour were more impacted in terms of infection rates and deaths. The team also probed participants’ knowledge of systemic factors that created said disparities, asking the extent to which they agreed with several factual statements, such as “people of colour in the U.S. are less likely to have access to drive-through testing services (relative to White people), which increases the spread of COVID-19 among people of colour”.

The participants were then presented with several measures in a randomised order, which looked at their fear of Covid, support for safety precautions (such as wearing a mask and social distancing), intentions to socially distance from those of different races, and racial attitudes. Participants also provided demographic data.

Somewhat in line with the team’s expectations, those that perceived greater Covid disparities between races reported less fear of the disease, though no less endorsement of Covid-related public health measures. In contrast, those with more knowledge of the systemic factors responsible for these disparities showed increased fear of Covid, as well as more support for Covid-related safety precautions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who were more conservative were less likely to support Covid public health measures.

The team took these findings further in their second study, investigating whether exposure to information about Covid racial disparities might move the needle in similar ways. For this leg of their research, 1,505 newly recruited White participants were randomly presented with one of three articles. Two of these referred to racial disparities in Covid outcomes, only one of which provided an explanation: that these disparities were the product of long-standing healthcare inequalities. A control article didn’t mention racial disparities at all. Participants then completed the same measures as in study one, with the addition of a measure of empathy.

This study again showed that having more knowledge about racial disparities led to less concern about Covid. However, this effect seemed to be strongest for the group presented with information about the role of systemic issues in producing these disparities. Reduced concern in this group in turn led them to show less support for safety precautions. In essence, it seems as though the more the participants knew, the less they cared.

The authors speculate that explaining how Covid racial disparities are a product of enduring health inequalities affecting non-White communities may have made White participants feel that they were unlikely to be similarly affected. This psychological distance may be part of the problem.

In their paper, the team draws lines between several psychological factors that may also contribute to this surprising outcome. Firstly, when faced with a threatening health situation, people are likely to contrast their own situation with that of people more at risk as a method of coping, drawing distance between the two for comfort. Perceiving a group and their situation as psychologically distant from one’s own (i.e. an out-group rather than an in-group) can make threats facing other groups also seem distant from oneself, and therefore less of a threat. The combination of these factors is likely to leave White people with reduced empathy for members of those at-risk racial minorities, while also reducing engagement with public health precautions.

Future efforts to create practical strategies and programs which lessen these particular psychological quirks may prove important in future public health efforts. In the meantime, the authors believe that additional care should be taken when reporting on racial disparities during the pandemic, as fuelling this phenomenon may perpetuate inequalities and have damaging effects on public health behaviour.

Highlighting COVID-19 racial disparities can reduce support for safety precautions among White U.S. residents

Post written for BPS Research Digest by Emma L. Barratt (@E_Barratt). Emma is a cognitive scientist and science communicator based in Newcastle, UK. Her work centres primarily around atypical and clinical psychology, as well as cognitive factors pertaining to human spaceflight and space exploration. In 2015, she published the first peer reviewed investigations of Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. She also works alongside an international team to produce educational content for the popular YouTube channel SciShow

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