Why Are Women More Concerned About Covid-19 Than Men?

A new study examines gender differences in fear and risk perception during the Covid-19 pandemic.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 19, 2021

A new study appearing in Frontiers in Psychology examines why women are more worried about Covid-19 than men, despite health data showing that men are more likely to become seriously ill or die from the disease. For instance, a recent meta-analysis found that men have about a 40% greater mortality risk from Covid-19 and are approximately three times more likely to be admitted to intensive care units.

I recently spoke with the lead authors of the research, Dr. Sheryl Ball and Dr. Alec Smith of Virginia Tech, to discuss the key takeaways from their research. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of gender differences in Covid-19 fear, and what did you find?

Back in March 2020 we were interested in how the Covid-19 pandemic would change people's economic preferences — things like how willing someone is to take a financial risk or to trust someone. Previous research shows that women are often less willing to take risks than men, so this topic was a natural extension.

The main takeaways from our study were:

  • Women report higher fear of the Covid-19 pandemic compared to men.
  • Gender differences in preventative health behaviors disappeared once we controlled for emotional experiences, suggesting that fear of the Covid-19 pandemic, and not gender per se, drives behavioral differences.
  • Women report more negative perceptions about the pandemic's health, but not economic, risks.

Interestingly, in our survey, we found that nearly 20.0% of women chose the highest available value for fear of the pandemic, compared to around 9.3% of men.

Your study was conducted in April, 2020. Do you think anything has changed since then regarding your hypotheses and findings?

The average person is probably less afraid of Covid-19 now than in April 2020. The reason we believe this is that we originally collected data in the beginning, middle and end of April 2020, and we find that fear decreased substantially even during that month. We expect that it has continued to decrease since then.

How much do you believe our fear response to Covid-19 has been guided by the true severity of the pandemic versus other factors such as media attention and regulatory guidance?

This is a good question that is difficult to answer with our data. Attention can generate emotional reactions, and vice versa. In our data, fear of Covid-19 is related to trust in media but also to perception of health and economic risks. In general, emotions are the body's and the brain's way of saying that something important is happening. That's likely the case with fear of Covid-19.

Your study was conducted in the United States. Do you think these findings apply cross-culturally, or might there be regional differences in men and women's emotional response to the threat of Covid-19?

People have found cross-cultural differences between men and women in many settings, so it is certainly possible that they apply here. We would be hesitant to claim that our results apply to other countries, especially those are very different than the United States.

How might governments use the information presented in your research, and other related research, to better address the behavioral aspects of the Covid-19 crisis?

Policy makers should keep in mind that people have economic as well as health concerns about Covid-19. The findings suggest that messaging about preventative measures like mask wearing — which the scientific evidence says is effective — might be more effective if it emphasizes both economic as well as health benefits of these behaviors.

What can individuals learn from this research to help them better navigate the current crisis?

In behavioral economics we talk about mental shortcuts people use when making decisions, an example of which is the Affect Heuristic. The Affect Heuristic describes a phenomenon in which emotions influence the way people make risky choices. This is consistent with the idea that the more afraid of Covid-19 people are the more they will perceive the risks associated with both the disease and other possible consequences of the pandemic like job loss to be high. For example, we all probably know people who are terrified and can barely leave their house. Of course, the reverse is also true — the people who aren't afraid will perceive the risks associated with the disease to be low. These people are probably unwilling to wear a mask or get vaccinated. We advocate making decisions about how to stay safe from Covid-19 based on advice from reliable experts, not your own feelings. The best guidance comes from the CDC, local public health officials, and your own doctor.