Visual representations of SARS-CoV-2, emotions, and risk perception of COVID-19

Nan Li, Amanda L. Molder, Shiyu Yang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Background and Aims: Before COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and many other organizations published many images of its pathogen (namely SARS-CoV-2) to raise public awareness of the disease. Despite their scientific and aesthetic values, such images may convey metaphoric meanings and cause a subsequent impact on viewers' fear and disgust. This study investigated how exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 images might shape viewers' fear, disgust, and risk perception of COVID-19. Methods: Seventy images depicting the SARS-CoV-2 were collected from the websites of CDC, NIAID, and third-party organizations in early 2020. We first showed the images to a group of 492 adults recruited from the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) and asked them to rate their levels of fear and disgust for each image. Results of this pre-test allowed us to identify images that evoked high, medium, and low levels of fear and disgust, which were then used as treatment stimuli for an online experiment with a national sample of 500 U.S. adults. Results: Exposure to the selected SARS-CoV-2 images caused different levels of disgust, but not fear, among the members of the national sample. Noticeably, the images evoking the highest level of disgust backfired among those who were least concerned about COVID and caused less fear than images evoking the lowest level of disgust. Image exposure was not associated with risk perception of the disease. Conclusion: This study found that the seemingly objective visualizations of the SARS-CoV-2 are not emotionally neutral. Scientists, agencies, and media professionals should be mindful of the potential emotional impact of science visualizations, such as when creating the iconic image for COVID-19 or other infectious diseases.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere496
JournalHealth Science Reports
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022


  • COVID-19
  • emotions
  • infectious diseases
  • public understanding
  • science visualizations


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