Assessing the Variance, Effects, and Sources of Aversion to Zika Solutions

Branden Johnson

National Science Foundation

July 1, 2016 – June 30, 2018


The emergence of Zika as yet another dread emergent infectious disease, soon after Ebola, raises the question of how people want a novel and threatening hazard to be managed, considering the link of Zika virus infection with microcephaly and pregnancy, its transmission via both mosquitoes and sexual intercourse, and the likely role of climate change in extending mosquito vectors’ range beyond southern U.S. states. The “solution aversion” hypothesis, prefigured in cultural cognition analyses of risk perceptions, suggests that when proposed solutions threaten central values (e.g., support for free markets), people will respond by denying or downplaying the magnitude of the problem (i.e., risk perception is a function of solution evaluation). The Zika case offers such diverse potential solutions that we can probe how reactions vary across solutions within and across people. For example, conservatives might be offended by solutions involving contraception, abortion, or climate change mitigation; liberals might be offended by solutions involving travel or immigration restrictions, large-scale pesticide spraying, or celibacy; both groups might be offended by genetic modification of mosquitoes. By assessing dynamics of such responses over time, the project advances knowledge of the role of solution evaluation in both risk perception and hazard management preferences, both for infectious-disease management and for hazards more generally. This project promotes progress of science in understanding public preferences for hazard management, and the role of values, and mass and social media, in those judgments; advances national health by informing the public health community about potential public reactions to proposed policies; and supports the education of graduate students. Broader impacts include showing hazard managers how public reactions to alternative solutions to Zika could affect the acceptability of varied management options and risk communication strategies, both for this specific hazard and for similar solutions in other hazard contexts.

The project uses a three-wave longitudinal survey, preceded by a pretest of solution attributes, to test whether and how solution views change over time, the role of values and affect relative to other more cognitive factors in solution views, the relative role of different kinds of values and value inventories in risk perception, using a random sample from a diverse national online panel. Wave 1 measures different values and inventories (cultural cognition, global values, moral foundations) as well as non-Zika risk perceptions and demographic variables; Wave 2 measures Zika-relevant views (risk perception; mass and social media use; solutions), as does Wave 3 about 6 months later. A concurrent analysis of Zika coverage in mass and social media allows testing of associations between solution coverage in those media and solution preferences among the people who follow those specific media, among other benefits.

The intellectual merit of the project includes its testing and extension of the “solution aversion” hypothesis to assess whether it 1) applies only to controversial hazards or solutions; 2) always affects perceptions of the problem; 3) is shaped only by values, versus affect, cognitive appraisals (e.g., efficacy or availability), or other factors; and 4) is more associated with some values than others. Comparison of value measures also allows first-ever testing of the relative appropriateness of these different approaches to assessing the effects of values on risk views. The outlet-specific (e.g., a particular TV channel or hashtag) testing of associations between mass and social media coverage of solutions, and individuals? preferences and attribute judgments for those solutions, is another innovation that advances understanding of media agenda-setting and social amplification of risk.