Psychologists have warned that the government should consider the “complexity and nuance in people’s positions” when implementing new policies, finding that views have been over-simplified as either for or against the restrictions throughout the pandemic.
The study, published in the Royal Society Open Science journal, found that most people are likely to take Covid-19 less seriously once restrictions are lifted.
According to the findings, which surveyed 212 members of the public in June and December 2020, people evaluate the immediate threat of the virus against the severity of government restrictions.
“In other words, they thought ‘it must be bad if government’s taking such drastic measures’,” Dr Colin Foad, a professor in psychology at Cardiff University and lead author of the study said.
“We also found that the more they judged the risk in this way, the more they supported lockdown. This suggests that if and when ‘Freedom Day’ comes and restrictions are lifted, people may downplay the threat of Covid,” he said.
The government needs to “clearly communicate” why those restrictions are no longer necessary if it wants the public to have an accurate perception of the threat of the virus, the psychologists said.
Over the course of the last year, polls have shown that most of the public supported a third national lockdown.
However, while the study’s participants did consistently support lockdown measures, they also recognised significant side effects of these policies, such as the impact on the economy.
“For example, we found that when people think about the costs of this policy, such as [being] detriment to mental health and reduced access to treatment for non-Covid health problems, these can outweigh its benefits,” he said.
The researchers have urged the government to alter the language used in polls to gain a better understanding of the “diversity and complexity” of people’s opinions.
“Polling data from large samples are important in understanding what people think. Our study, however, shows that it is crucial to ask the right questions because otherwise we are only getting a limited and potentially even misleading picture of how diverse and even conflicting public opinions truly are,” Paul Hanel, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex said.
During one of his earliest addresses to the public at the beginning of the pandemic, Boris Johnson described the threat of coronavirus as “the worst public health crisis for a generation” and warned the public that they should prepare “to lose loved ones before their time”.
Psychologists said this approach of heightening people’s personal threat was unlikely to enhance their support for restrictions.
“Instead, people judged the threat at a much more general level, such as towards the country as a whole. So, any messaging that targets their personal sense of threat is unlikely to actually raise support for any further restrictions,” Foad said.
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