The pandemic fallacy: Inaccuracy of social scientists’ and lay judgments about COVID-19’s societal consequences in America

February, 2021


Effective management of global crises relies on expert judgment of their societal effects. How accurate are such judgments? In the spring of 2020, we asked social scientists (N = 717) and lay Americans (N = 394) to make predictions about COVID-19 pandemic-related societal change across social and psychological domains. Six months later we obtained retrospective assessments for the same domains (Nscientists = 270; NlayP = 411) and compared these judgments to objective data to assess estimation accuracy. Social scientists were no more accurate than lay people, neither in prospective nor retrospective judgments. Across studies and samples, estimates of the magnitude of change were off by more than 20% and less than half of participants accurately predicted the direction of changes. Taken together, we find that experts and lay people fared poorly at predicting social and psychological consequences of the pandemic and misperceive what effects it may have already had.

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