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People often trust their guts over hard facts during medical emergencies, study finds

Researchers say emotions and personal experiences are more compelling to most consumers

Photo (c) YakobchukOlena - Getty Images
Amidst all the mandates and advice given by health officials during the current COVID-19 outbreak, there are still many people who are choosing to ignore public warnings and act in the way that they think is best. While this behavior may leave others shaking their heads, results from a new study may explain why this is happening. 

Researchers from The University of Texas at Arlington say that when it comes to medical emergencies, many people are much more likely to trust their gut and act based on their emotions, opinions, and the anecdotal stories that they’ve heard instead of cold, hard facts. 

"We found that people are more likely to consider personal anecdotes than fact-based information, especially when it deals with medical emergencies," said researcher Traci Freling. "This has a high importance in the current environment, where everyone is concerned about the coronavirus."

Emotional factors

Freling and fellow researcher Ritesh Saini came to their conclusions after analyzing 61 studies that measured the impact of evidence on persuasion. They found that one of the primary factors behind these behaviors is emotional engagement. 

They posit that consumers who feel vulnerable or anxious are much more likely to ignore fact-based evidence and stick with following their gut. That appears to especially hold true for situations when a person’s health is at risk.

"[People] are especially dismissive of facts if the incident is something they personally experienced," Freling explained. "Specifically, we show that when an issue is health-related, personally relevant or highly threatening, then decision-making is compromised and people tend to rely on anecdotes."

Facts still apply in some cases

While the findings certainly apply to many decisions being made during the current coronavirus outbreak, the researchers say there are areas of life in which facts are more heavily considered. Saini notes that people tend to make “"more fact-based decisions when choosing for others, but become surprisingly irrational when choosing for [themselves.]" 

Elten Briggs, the chair of the Marketing Department at The University of Texas at Arlington, says that the research “provides guidance on how to craft more influential messaging during times like these, when anxiety is heightened for so many people.”

The full study has been published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

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