Experts used to believe that people evaluate risk like actuaries or insurance agents, using objective metrics and pro/con analysis. Many experiments and much research has found that people use mental shortcuts for measuring danger or assessing opportunity. These shortcuts, which humans developed during the long evolutionary process, are meant to let humans pay attention to dangers/opportunities that are worth their while while disregarding those that aren’t.
And they do so unconsciously, i.e. gut feeling, instinct and emotion usually play a significant role in decision small and big. With current covid-19 epidemic, many of our evolutionarily-programmed shortcut are being activated, without us realizing it. For example, as media in most countries started blasting about the perceived danger of the covid-19 outbreak, we visualized the most recent ‘similar’ H1N1 and SARS outbreaks. This is what is called availability bias. We retrieve from our memories the most accessible – usually either the most recent or the most traumatic/peak experiences – and consider this case to be like them.
Another mental shortcut is novelty. We are conditioned to focus heavily on new threats, leading us to obsess over the scariest reports and worst-case scenarios, perceiving the danger to be bigger. Assessing covid-19 as quite difficult ,considering even experts disagree on its potential impact (long term health implications, potential to have it second… time, optimal treatment, etc) but our brains make it look easier for us, translating gut feelings into reasoned beliefs.
Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate in Economics
“Our expectations about frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed”
In extreme cases due to reports about covid-19, now with many European countries having thousands of cases and closing their borders or locking in an entire country, crowding out effect happens, i.e. our emotional impulses – fear, anxiety, panic, overwhelm our rationality.
If a risk seems especially painful/disturbing, people tend to raise their estimate of how likely it is to happen to them. Reports on covid-19 often feature upsetting imagery, people in panic, city-scale lockdowns.
Another trigger is a threat not understood or without a precedent. The less known it is, the more people fear and overestimate it. Research shows only 25% of weight is coming from facts and the rest is mixture of emotions, luck, and context. Consider the response to the partial meltdown of the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, in 1979. Though the incident caused no deaths, it led to public demand to turn from nuclear power to fossil fuels whose impact on air quality, alone, is thought to cause thousands of premature deaths every year.
Our minds tend to either “round down” the probability to 0 and we underreact, when it looks far or not touching us. When it comes to us, as it inevitably does, then we overreact, overestimate and go crazy about facts. This is again happening again in case of covid-19.