The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives of people worldwide. To understand how people’s emotional and behavioral responses have changed over the course of the pandemic, we conducted a three-wave longitudinal study in the United States and China across four stages of the pandemic: pre-pandemic, onset of viral outbreak, ongoing risk, and contained risk. We found that boredom, anxiety, fear and worry were common emotional reactions to the emerging pandemic. Surprisingly, the public’s emotional experience did not mirror infection and death rates, but soon reverted back to normality, regardless of whether the viral spread was contained or not. Consequently, it was only at the onset of the viral outbreak that people’s preventive behaviours were driven by fear, anxiety and worry. Knowledge about the coronavirus provided a more enduring motivation for preventive behaviours in both countries.
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