Coronavirus: How We Misjudge Risk

Coronavirus ‘Hits All the Hot Buttons’ for How We Misjudge Risk – The New York TimesBy Max Fisher – Feb 2020

I see a striking similarity between fear of the coronavirus and fear of opioid addiction.

Like everywhere else on campus, and in much of the world, the coronavirus was all anybody could talk about. But one of the attendees, a public health student, had had enough. Exasperated, she rattled off a set of statistics.

The virus had killed about 1,100 worldwide and infected around a dozen in the United States. Alarming, but a much more common illness, influenza, kills about 400,000 people every year, including 34,200 Americans last flu season and 61,099 the year before.  

So the 80,000 flu deaths I previously cited from the 2017-2018 winter flu was unusual, but not entirely out of the norm. 

There remains deep uncertainty about the new coronavirus’ mortality rate, with the high-end estimate that it is up to 20 times that of the flu, but some estimates go as low as 0.16 percent for those affected outside of China’s overwhelmed Hubei province. About on par with the flu.

Wasn’t there something strange, the student asked, about the extreme disparity in public reactions?

While the metrics of public health might put the flu alongside or even ahead of the new coronavirus for sheer deadliness, she said, the mind has its own ways of measuring danger. And the new coronavirus disease, named COVID-19 hits nearly every cognitive trigger we have.

That explains the global wave of anxiety.

But there is a lesson, psychologists and public health experts say, in the near-terror that the virus induces, even as serious threats like the flu receive little more than a shrug.

Just like we are seeing a “near-terror” that prescribed opioids will inevitably lead to addiction, such fear triggers extreme overreactions and bad policy.

It illustrates the unconscious biases in how human beings think about risk, as well as the impulses that often guide our responses — sometimes with serious consequences.

“We’re hearing about the fatalities,” he said. “We’re not hearing about the 98 or so percent of people who are recovering from it and may have had mild cases.”

This is exactly what happened with the “opioid crisis” when we heard countless stories about people who overdosed on (illicit) opioids (plus a whole lot of other drugs).

Of course, many pain patients who need pain relief have told their stories, but in forums, blogs, and web publications mostly read by other pain patients.

The general public remains convinced that opioids cause addiction, thanks to the barrage of PROPaganda started by a few self-proclaimed experts and anti-opioid zealots.

Just like with the frenzied coverage of the coronavirus, the public has been carpet-bombed with scare-inducing inaccuracies by the click-seeking media.

Though flu kills tens of thousands of Americans every year, most peoples’ experiences with it are relatively mundane.

The coronavirus also taps into other psychological shortcuts for assessing risk.

One involves novelty: We are conditioned to focus heavily on new threats, looking for any cause for alarm. This can lead us to obsess over the scariest reports and worst-case scenarios, making the danger seem bigger still.

In extreme cases, this can lead to a “crowding-out effect,” Dr. Bostrom said, as our emotional impulses overwhelm our cognitive faculties. The coronavirus hits a number of those triggers, often quite hard.

One is dread.

If a risk seems especially painful or disturbing, people tend to raise their estimate of how likely it is to happen to them. Reports on the coronavirus often feature upsetting imagery: unhygienic food markets, city-scale lockdowns and overcrowded hospitals.

Another trigger is a threat that is not fully understood. The less known it is, the more people may fear it, and overestimate its threat.

Risks that we take on voluntarily, or that at least feel voluntary, are often seen as less dangerous than they really are. One study found that people will raise their threshold for the amount of danger they are willing to take on by a factor of one thousand if they see the risk as voluntary.

If that number sounds high, consider that

  • driving, a danger most take on voluntarily, kills over 40,000 Americans every year.
  • But terrorism, a threat imposed on us, kills fewer than 100.

This is also like the apprehension, if not outright fear, of flying. We are in more danger while driving to the airport than we are while flying.  “Air travel fatalities have been recorded in each of the last 12 years, with a total of 287 deaths in 2019 due to air crashes.”

And below is an article from a medical website,

The Fear of the Coronavirus, and the Reality of the Flu | HCPLive – by Simon Murray, MD – Feb 2020

According to the latest reports from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), influenza (flu) has caused the deaths of 10,000-25,000 Americans, hospitalized 180,000, and sickened 19 million so far in the 2019-2020 season.

Coronavirus, on the other hand, has killed about 900 people worldwide.

There have been only a handful of cases in the United States, with no deaths reported.

So why is the public so panicked over this outbreak?

The outbreak is similar to the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, which was initially transmitted from animals to humans and believed to have originated from civet cats and bats.

There wasn’t anywhere near this amount of panic about the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, perhaps because there wasn’t yet the infrastructure of social media, which always amplifies the most extreme views without fact-checking.

patients infected with the flu virus generally become contagious about 1 day prior to developing symptoms, and remain infectious for another 5 days.

So, this scare about being contagious before showing symptoms is no different than the normal flu either.

The fact remains that this strain of coronavirus is not highly contagious; it behaves very similarly to other infectious viruses by targeting mainly the weak and/or immunocompromised portions of the population.

For most of us, contracting coronavirus infection will lead to a flu-like syndrome, and the majority of patients will most likely survive—very similar to the majority of people who get flu.

The fact is, influenza is an illness that is far more deadly but also far more familiar to us. The current coronavirus outbreak, which originated in China, serves as a surrogate for a good deal of xenophobia and fear of the country itself.

2 thoughts on “Coronavirus: How We Misjudge Risk

  1. meb

    Lack of data on this virus is a biggie. Personally? I’d rather folks be hypervigilant than indifferent or dismissive. My family are in a higher risk group, so I have legit concerns. We had some sort of flu viruses 2x last year, for example.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Though it’s starting to sound worse, we still don’t have reliable data upon which to base our estimates of mortality.

      It certainly never hurts to be cautious!



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