The COVID-19 pandemic has created a global health crisis, leading to stigmatization and discriminatory behaviors against people who have contracted or are suspected of having contracted the virus. Yet the causes of stigmatization in the context of COVID-19 remain only partially understood. Using attribution theory, we examine to what extent attributes of a fictitious person affect the formation of stigmatizing attitudes towards this person, and whether suspected COVID-19 infection (vs. flu) intensifies such attitudes. We also use the familiarity hypothesis to explore whether familiarity with COVID-19 reduces stigma and whether it moderates the effect of a COVID-19 infection on stigmatization.
We conducted a multifactorial vignette survey experiment (28-design, i.e., NVignettes = 256) in Germany (NRespondents = 4,059) in which we experimentally varied signals and signaling events (i.e., information that may trigger stigma) concerning a fictitious person in the context of COVID-19. We assessed respondents’ cognitive (e.g., blameworthiness) and affective (e.g., anger) responses as well as their discriminatory inclinations (e.g., avoidance) towards the character. Furthermore, we measured different indicators of respondents’ familiarity with COVID-19.
Results revealed higher levels of stigma towards people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 versus a regular flu. In addition, stigma was higher towards those who were considered responsible for their infection due to irresponsible behavior. Knowing someone who died from a COVID infection increased stigma. While higher self-reported knowledge about COVID-19 was associated with more stigma, higher factual knowledge was associated with less.
Attribution theory and to a lesser extent the familiarity hypothesis can help better understand stigma in the context of COVID-19. This study provides insights about who is at risk of stigmatization and stigmatizing others in this context. It thereby allows identifying the groups that require more support in accessing healthcare services and suggests that basic, factually oriented public health interventions would be promising for reducing stigma.