Identity change, uncertainty and mistrust in relation to fear and risk of COVID-19

Glynis M. Breakwell, Rusi Jaspal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Citations (SciVal)


The COVID-19 pandemic produced threats not only to physical and psychological health but also to the very fabric of family, work and social life. Individuals differ markedly in their ability to cope with such threats. Drawing on Identity Process Theory, our study examines identity processes that shape emotional and attitudinal responses to COVID-19. Survey data were collected from 251 adults in the UK during July 2020. Identity resilience, trust in science and scientists, fear of COVID-19 and perceived own risk of infection were measured. Respondents then watched a video clip designed to focus their thinking further upon the disease. Immediately after, levels of feeling afraid, uncertainty about self-protection, mistrust of anyone offering COVID-19 advice, and perceptions of identity change were indexed. A structural equation model of the relationship between these variables was tested and proved a good fit for the data. Identity resilience is negatively related to fear of COVID-19, which in turn is positively related to perceived own risk of COVID-19. Higher identity resilience is associated with greater uncertainty and feeling more afraid. Greater identity change is associated with higher mistrust, uncertainty and feeling more afraid. Trust in science and scientists correlates positively with perceived own risk of COVID-19 and negatively with mistrust of those offering advice on preventive behaviour. This study shows the usefulness of the identity resilience concept in modelling responses to health hazards. It also illustrates that focusing, even for a short time, on the characteristics of such a hazard can elicit perceived identity changes. Arousing fear is unlikely to initiate self-protection in those who are already fearful or who have less identity resilience. Fostering greater general trust in science and scientists, though difficult, will be valuable, particularly in encouraging public acceptance of mass vaccination against the virus when misinformation and conspiracy theories about it abound.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)335-351
JournalJournal of Risk Research
Issue number3-4
Early online date26 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2021


  • fear of COVID-19
  • Identity change
  • identity resilience
  • mistrust
  • risk of COVID-19
  • uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • Engineering(all)
  • Strategy and Management


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