COVID-19: Calibrate Your Risk Perception

 By Shlomo Maital  

   How risky is COVID-19 to me, personally? How do I process the news, numbers, fake news, and hysteria, to evaluate the seriousness of the threat to me, personally?

   Behavioral economics knows a lot about risk perception. Many years ago, Kahneman and Tversky showed, with simple this-or-that choice experiments, that we humans overwhelmingly overestimate small probabilities.

   This seems to be the case with COVID-19. Writing in the New York Times, medical doctor and psychiatrist Richard Friedman observes: *

  Throughout the country, people are stockpiling food in anticipation of a shortage or a quarantine. Supplies of Purell hand sanitizer flew off the shelves in local pharmacies and are now hard to find or even unavailable online. I understand the impulse to secure one’s safety in the face of a threat. But the fact is that if I increase the supply of medication for my patients, I could well deprive other patients of needed medication, so I reluctantly declined those requests. As a psychiatrist, I frequently tell my patients that their anxieties and fears are out of proportion to reality, something that is often true and comforting for them to realize. But when the object of fear is a looming pandemic, all bets are off.

   Friedman continues:

   In this case, there is reason for alarm. The coronavirus is an uncertain and unpredictable danger. This really grabs our attention, because we have been hard-wired by evolution to respond aggressively to new threats. After all, it’s safer to overact to the unknown than to do too little. Unfortunately, that means we tend to overestimate the risk of novel dangers. I can cite you statistics until I am blue in the face demonstrating that your risk of dying from the coronavirus is minuscule compared with your risk of dying from everyday threats, but I doubt you’ll be reassured. For example, 169,000 Americans died by accident and 648,000 died of heart disease in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Sunday morning 19 Americans had died from the coronavirus.

OK – so what SHOULD we be doing, then, in the face of panic that the objective risk does not justify?

   Find ways to help and reassure others, notes the wise Dr. Friedman.

      Researchers found that when subjects made selfish decisions, the brain’s reward center was activated, whereas when they made generous decisions, a region of the brain implicated in empathy lit up. This suggests that people are more likely to be altruistic if they are primed to think of others and to imagine how their behavior might benefit them.

     The good news is that even in the face of fear, we do have the capacity to act in ways that would help limit contagion during an epidemic. Specifically, we can behave altruistically, which benefits everyone. For example, research shows that when people are told that it is possible — but not certain — that going to work while sick would infect a co-worker, people are less willing to stay home than when they are reminded of the certainty that going to work sick would expose vulnerable co-workers to a serious chance of illness. Stressing the certainty of risk, in other words, more effectively motivates altruism than stressing the possibility of harm   The lesson for the real world is that health officials should be explicit in telling the public that selfish responses to an epidemic, such as going to work while sick or failing to wash your hands, threaten the health of the community.

And what should our great leaders do?

     Specifically, public figures need to convey loudly and clearly that we should not go to work or travel when we’re sick and that we should not hoard food and medical supplies beyond our current need — not just give us health statistics or advise about how to wash our hands.

Let us all try to recalibrate our risk perceptions. COVID-19 will spread, it will afflict a lot of people, it IS NOT possible to put it back in Pandora’s box. But there are a lot of other scary things going on in this world that threaten each of us. Because we have known them for a long time (ordinary flu, traffic deaths, etc.), we are habituated. COVID-19 is new, scary and rather unknown. We will in time come to know it. We will overcome it. And in the meantime, help and reassure your family and your friends. Take it from Dr. Friedman.  

   * “The Best Response to the Coronavirus? Altruism, Not Panic. The impulse to secure your safety is understandable but counterproductive.” by Dr. Richard A. Friedman, NYT March 8/2020