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Why Younger People Disregard Safety Guidelines

Although people who are elderly or have preexisting health conditions are most likely to die from COVID-19, public health officials are urging young people to heed state and federal social distancing guidelines.

The World Health Organization said last week that new data from Europe suggest young people are at greater risk of complications than previously thought. The revelation could be a turning point for young adults who continue to gather during the pandemic, says a Purdue University expert in risk communication, persuasion and decision-making under uncertainty.

Social science concepts can explain their behavior, says Torsten Reimer, a professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication in the College of Liberal Arts.

Norms and influences:

Reimer has written about the ways in which people are influenced by the behavior of their peers in times of risk and uncertainty. These processes are known as normative and informational influences, and descriptive norms.

If uncertainty is high, we try to find out what similar people are doing in the same situation. If I see that many young people are hanging out together, that influences me to imitate them and infer that it would be an overreaction not to join them.

Perceived risk:

A person’s behavior also is shaped by their likelihood to suffer or be endangered in times of risk and uncertainty. Young people believed that they might be susceptible to get infected, but because the severity was very low, they perceived their personal risk as being smaller. That is changing right now because we are getting more and more numbers that show that younger people also are at risk for severe symptoms. (1).gif



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