By Fabian Hutmacher, Regina Reichardt, and Markus AppelThe COVID-19 pandemic poses a great challenge – to politicians and healthcare workers, but also to the general public. Not only because the present situation is associated with financial insecurity, stress, and reduced well-being for many people, but also because individuals need to understand the current state of research in order to adjust their behavior appropriately. As our study demonstrates, however, pandemic-related information is not processed in an objective manner. Rather, people’s attitudes influence their thinking: Being rational is not easy. That is the bad news. The good news is that the participants’ evaluations became more accurate when they had better abilities to reason with numbers.
How did we get to this conclusion? In order to investigate how people process pandemic-related information, we selected a topic that has become polarized in the public debate: mask mandates. We recruited 417 participants from the United States across the entire attitude spectrum, ranging from people who strongly oppose mask mandates to people who strongly support them. These participants were asked to evaluate the results of two studies on the effectiveness of mask mandates. While participants were told that the studies are real, they were actually fictitious. This enabled us to determine how biased our participants were.
Evaluating fictitious studies on mask mandates in schools
How did that work? The results of the two fictitious studies were presented as tables such as the one depicted in the figure. The table differentiates between the number of schools with and without a mask mandate as well as between the number of schools in which the number of infections increased and in which the number decreased. Participants had to indicate whether these numbers support the conclusion that a mask mandate in schools leads to an increase or to a decrease in the number of infections.
When you look at the table, what do you think? At first glance, it seems that mask mandates in schools are counterproductive. The number of schools with a mask mandate in which the number of infections increased (223) is higher than the number of schools with a mask mandate in which the number of infections decreased (75). Even more, the number of schools with a mask mandate in which the number of infections increased is higher than the number of schools without a mask mandate in which the number of infections increased (107)!
However, this first impression is misleading. What we need to do to arrive at the correct conclusion is to compare ratios: The infections increased in 223 out of 298 schools with a mask mandate (74.8%) and in 107 out of 128 schools without a mask mandate (83.6%). Therefore, in this fictitious study, the results actually indicated that mask mandates are an effective countermeasure. In addition to this pro-mask study, participants also evaluated an anti-mask study with reversed (and slightly changed) numbers.
The problem: Believing what we want to believe
Based on the evaluation of the two fictitious studies, we were able to calculate how biased our participants were and how their bias was related to their general attitude towards mask mandates. In short, participants evaluated the two studies in line with their prior attitudes. Participants with a pro-mask attitude overestimated the evidence for the effectiveness of mask mandates presented in the two fictitious studies, while participants with an anti-mask attitude underestimated the evidence for the effectiveness of mask mandates.
In the literature, such a pattern is typically interpreted as the result of motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning denotes the observation that human information processing is not always rational and objective, but influenced by the individual’s motives, goals, and attitudes. Simply put, we tend to arrive at those conclusions that we want to arrive at. As the successful containment of the pandemic requires rational decision-making and behavior, this seems worrying.
A possible cure: The ability to reason with numbers
Nevertheless, our study also provides a reason to remain optimistic: Participants with a higher ability to reason with numbers were more likely to evaluate the two fictitious studies correctly. Knowing statistics helps. This has important practical implications. In the short run, it seems important to communicate scientific results in the context of COVID-19 in a way that can easily be understood even by those who have difficulties dealing with numbers. In the long run, it seems crucial to foster statistical education in order to tame the beast of bias.
Read the original article The role of motivated science reception and numeracy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic
Fabian Hutmacher is a postdoctoral researcher at the Human-Computer-Media Institute at the University of Würzburg, Germany. Among other things, he is interested in information processing and memory.
Regina Reichardt is a lecturer at the Department of Psychology at the University of Regensburg, Germany, with research interests in social cognition and educational psychology.
Markus Appel is a professor (Psychology of Communication and New Media) at the University of Würzburg, Germany. Among other things, he is interested in how different forms and formats of information shape our view of the world