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Societal Values & Personal Risky Behaviors Unchanged in 6 Months of Pandemic Era, Except We’re Drinking More Alcohol

April 12, 2021 | Letters

Author: Dr. Nicole Olynk Widmar, Associate Head and Professor, Purdue University Department of Agricultural Economics
Dr. Courtney Bir, Department of Agricultural Economics, Oklahoma State University 

After previous analyses of human behaviors surrounding mask wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the summer of 2020, we began exploring how to assess individual’s perceptions of personal versus societal responsibilities.  Media stories about mask wearing (or more often, not mask wearing) began to focus upon the politics that had become embroiled in the public health question of whether to cover one’s face in public to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

An article by Jordan Smith, a summer reporter for The Exponent, interviewed me for a story covering mask wearing behavior in August 2020 and published the following text as part of the full-length article, Majority says masks curb disease, but wearing habits vary.

Mere science won’t convince everyone, Widmar notes. The paper references President Donald Trump’s avid refusal to wear a mask for the beginning months of the pandemic. Myths abound about the effectiveness of the anti-malarial medication hydroxychloroquine and the severity of symptoms from which COVID-19 patients suffer.

Widmar could not definitively state whether residents of Indiana, a reliably conservative state, are segmented by political parties in their beliefs about the coronavirus. Her survey did not explicitly track political affiliation, but instead offered statements about societal values to detect political trends.

“Agreement with the statement ‘gun ownership is a right based on the U.S. Constitution’ was negatively correlated with the belief masks had a role in society related to the spread of COVID-19,” the study finds, meaning that agreeing with the first statement is associated with disagreement that masks play a role. “Agreement with the statements ‘Healthcare is a human right’, and ‘I always wear my seat belt when driving’ were positively correlated with the belief masks had a role in society.”

In our most recent data collection (January 2021), we again asked about societal values, in addition to personal behaviors and practices which may carry risk, such as smoking, drinking alcohol and (lack of) seatbelt wearing.  Mean levels of agreement are presented for the June 2020 and January 2021 samples collected and analyzed.  Among the highest levels of agreement for a personal behavior is that respondents agree that they always wear a seatbelt when driving.  Societally, respondents in both time periods believe we have a responsibility to protect the elderly and children, although there is less agreement that healthcare is a human right.  

Interestingly, the sample mean level of agreement for almost all of the personal risky behaviors and societal value statements remained unchanged in our January 2021 sample compared to the June 2020 sample. The one single exception — the mean agreement that “I frequently drink alcohol” — has statistically increased from a mean agreement of 2.20 on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly) to 2.35 on that same scale.  It’s possible that alcohol consumption behaviors really have changed during the pandemic, or perhaps that willingness to self-report frequently drinking alcohol changed while actual behaviors did not.  Regardless, the recognition of this single statement for which a change was detected out of the nine studied gives at least an instance for pause and further consideration about possible changes in behavior during this pandemic time-period. 

Mean level of agreement with societal value statements and participation in behaviors associated with possible personal risk factors