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How to reduce health risks during the "tripledemic"

With what many scientists call a “tripledemic” of Covid-19, influenza, and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) soaring in many parts of the United States, the holiday season will once more arrive with some tough decisions to be taken: Should you go to the Thanksgiving dinner although you woke up with a cold? Send your children to school although they are coughing? Wear a mask at a shop after finding out that one of your contacts had Covid?

Fortunately, according to a new study led by the University of Colorado, Boulder, when people simply take a moment to reflect on the consequences of their behaviors, they usually tend to choose options which impose fewer risks to other people. Moreover, this investigation of a cohort of 13,000 people also found that, almost universally, people seem to value others’ health and wellbeing.

“Most people aspire to behave in a way that considers others’ wellbeing but often, in the moment, they behave more selfishly than they aspire to,” said study senior author Leaf Van Boven, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU Boulder. “Our lab is trying to devise ways to help people better align their in-the-moment behavior with their values.”

For this study – conducted at the height of the pandemic – the researchers, together with colleagues from Austria, Italy, Israel, Singapore, Sweden, and the UK, presented participants from these countries with three hypothetical scenarios: in one, they owned a small restaurant and were thinking to reduce capacity as the coronavirus surged; in another, they were supposed to meet with 50 friends for a birthday party after months of isolation but, due to a new Covid surge, the government cautioned that gatherings of more than ten people were unwise; and in a third, they considered whether to cancel a large Thanksgiving meeting that was supposed to include older adults and children.

Before making a decision, half of the participants were instructed to pause and reflect upon the consequences of their actions through a method devised in Van Boven’s lab called “structured reflection,” which was aimed at helping people be more mindful of their own values. The scientists told them to ask themselves two questions contrasting how their decisions would impact them personally versus how they would impact public health.

The analysis revealed that, across all countries, cultures, ages, and political parties, nearly everyone gave at least equal weight to others’ wellbeing. “That’s encouraging,” said Van Boven. “Our study and others suggest it is a universal human tendency that people believe they should care about how their behavior affects other people.”

Such techniques could be applied to various public health goals in which the in-the-moment personal benefits tend to overshadow public health considerations. As Covid restrictions lift, personal responsibility will grow increasingly important.

“I would encourage everyone to develop a habit of asking themselves when they are considering any sort of large social gathering: What is the risk you might impose on other people and is the benefit of the gathering worth the risk?” Van Boven concluded.

The study is published in the journal PNAS Nexus.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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