The high prevalence of seasonal illnesses focuses attention on how people evaluate the health and well-being of others

When mildly ill, people who reflect on the potential consequences of their behavior are less likely to go to holiday gatherings and events.

As COVID-19, the flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) spread rapidly along with the seasonal cold, new research has shed light on how people decide whether to attend events when they have mild symptoms, such as a stuffy nose.

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that when people take a moment to consider the consequences of their behavior, they tend to choose options that impose fewer risks on others. In addition, the survey of 13,000 participants found that almost everywhere people value the health and well-being of others. The findings are published in the journal PNAS Nexus.

The study was conducted in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and presented participants with 3 hypothetical scenarios. In one, the participant owned a small restaurant and was considering reducing capacity due to COVID-19. In another, they were due to meet 50 friends for a birthday after months of isolation, but their government warned that gatherings of 10 or more were unwise. In the final scenario, the participant considers whether to cancel a planned Thanksgiving celebration with 30 family members, including older adults and young children.

Before making their decision, half of the subjects were asked to pause and practice “structured reflection,” a technique designed to help people be more mindful of their own values. Participants were asked 2 questions contrasting how their decision would affect them personally versus how it would affect public health.

For example, in the Thanksgiving scenario, they asked, “To what extent should your decision be influenced by the likelihood of COVID-19 spreading to family members?” and “To what extent should your decision be influenced by your satisfaction with spending time with family members?’

Across countries, ages, cultures, and political parties, nearly all participants placed at least equal importance on the well-being of others.

“This is encouraging,” researcher Leaf Van Boven, PhD, in a press release. “Our study and others suggest that it is a universal human tendency for people to believe that they should care about how their behavior affects other people.”

Participants in the structured reflection group were significantly more likely to say they would cancel the Thanksgiving gathering, the study found. The other scenarios had similar results, with the structured reflection group more likely to be cautious and minimize public health risks.

Van Boven said techniques such as structured reflection can be applied to a variety of public health goals where personal gain, by human nature, tends to overshadow broader public health concerns. As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and the holiday season is here, personal responsibility will be increasingly important.

“In many ways, the pandemic has greatly eased the extent to which we rely on people voluntarily making decisions not only for their own betterment, but also for the betterment of others,” Van Boven said in the press release.

He noted that as soon as mask mandates were lifted, most people stopped wearing them, regardless of how much COVID-19 was circulating. However, he added that social connections are also vital, so it may sometimes be worth the risks to host or attend a gathering while taking precautions such as opening windows, wearing masks or limiting group size.

The most important thing is to take the time to weigh these risks and benefits, Van Boven said.

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


God sniffed? Here’s how to make the right decision for holiday gatherings. News release. CU Boulder; November 15, 2022. Accessed December 13, 2022.

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