Are people optimistically biased about the risk of covid-19 infection? Lessons from the first wave of the pandemic in europe

Kathleen McColl*, Marion Debin, Cecile Souty, Caroline Guerrisi, Clement Turbelin, Alessandra Falchi, Isabelle Bonmarin, Daniela Paolotti, Chinelo Obi, Jim Duggan, Yamir Moreno, Ania Wisniak, Antoine Flahault, Thierry Blanchon, Vittoria Colizza, Jocelyn Raude

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)
41 Downloads (Pure)


Unrealistic optimism, the underestimation of one’s risk of experiencing harm, has been investigated extensively to understand better and predict behavioural responses to health threats. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a relative dearth of research existed in this domain regarding epidemics, which is surprising considering that this optimistic bias has been associated with a lack of engagement in protective behaviours critical in fighting twenty-first-century, emergent, infectious diseases. The current study addresses this gap in the literature by investigating whether people demonstrated optimism bias during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe, how this changed over time, and whether unrealistic optimism was negatively associated with protective measures. Taking advantage of a pre-existing international participative influenza surveillance network (n = 12,378), absolute and comparative unrealistic optimism were measured at three epidemic stages (pre-, early, peak), and across four countries—France, Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Despite differences in culture and health response, similar patterns were observed across all four countries. The prevalence of unrealistic optimism appears to be influenced by the particular epidemic context. Paradoxically, whereas absolute unrealistic optimism decreased over time, comparative unrealistic optimism increased, suggesting that whilst people became increasingly accurate in assessing their personal risk, they nonetheless overestimated that for others. Comparative unrealistic optimism was negatively associated with the adoption of protective behaviours, which is worrying, given that these preventive measures are critical in tackling the spread and health burden of COVID-19. It is hoped these findings will inspire further research into sociocognitive mechanisms involved in risk appraisal.

Original languageEnglish
Article number436
Number of pages23
JournalInternational Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: This research received no external funding.

Open Access: This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and
conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (

Publisher Copyright: © 2021 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland.

Citation: McColl, K.; Debin, M.; Souty, C.; Guerrisi, C.; Turbelin, C.; Falchi, A.; Bonmarin, I.; Paolotti, D.; Obi, C.; Duggan, J.; et al. Are People Optimistically Biased about the Risk of COVID-19 Infection? Lessons from the First Wave of the Pandemic in Europe. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2022, 19, 436.

DOI: ijerph19010436


  • COVID-19
  • Europe
  • Optimism bias
  • Pandemic
  • Risk perception
  • Unrealistic optimism


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