Coronavirus Shows We Still Suck At Assessing Risk

I was really looking forward to co-chairing a session at the Society of Toxicology Annual Meeting this year. The organizers wisely canceled the meeting due to the one risk on everyone’s mind these days: coronavirus. My talk? “Communicating Risk in a (Mis)information-filled World,” in which I explore how errors in risk perception lead to public misunderstanding of scientific issues. These errors apply to many decisions that we make about health risks, but coronavirus might just be the perfect case study for understanding how errors in risk perception lead us astray. In short, coronavirus shows that we still suck at assessing risk.

Humans are terrible at assessing risk

As I’ve written before, humans are intuitively terrible at assessing risk. Even scientists like me who talk about risk all the time struggle with it in our own lives. These tendencies of ours show up again and again in how people assess risks, leading to misperceptions of common risks. We’re seeing many of these risk misperceptions play out daily with coronavirus. Let me explain.

We are bad at assigning value to long-term risks and benefits

Humans tend to focus on short-term risks and downsides, like the costs of canceling events or missing out on plans. We give less thought to the long-term benefits like “flattening the curve.” Flattening the curve means adopting measures to slow the spread of disease and reduce the number of people sick at the peak of an outbreak.

Our focus on short-term risks has led to irrational decisions, like stockpiling of goods, that have nothing to do with stopping the spread of coronavirus, and can lead to shortages of necessary medical supplies, like face masks you don’t actually need. We end up making decisions, both collectively and individually, that do not help “flatten the curve” but instead contribute to spreading the disease. A good example is hoarding toilet paper rather than practicing appropriate social distancing as recommended by public health officials.

Individual concerns are largely focused on the short-term risks and costs of canceling events and missing out on plans. We are giving little thought to the long-term benefits of flattening the curve.

We overestimate the risk of what we don’t understand

We also tend to notice the new and the unfamiliar, which is why we pay attention to coronavirus but ignore the risk of flu, even though infection rates for flu are higher on an annual basis. Each year, public health officials struggle to get people to adopt effective prevention measures for cold and flu (handwashing, social distancing, and vaccination), but coronavirus has caused downright panic.

I’m not saying that the dangers of the flu and coronavirus are equivalent. But we frequently ignore effective measures like vaccination and washing our hands because our familiarity leads us to underestimate the flu’s well-established risks.

How contagious and deadly is coronavirus?
How contagious and deadly is coronavirus compared to more familiar viruses (Information is Beautiful)

We worry more about risks that we can’t control and tend to overlook risks that we can control

Our fear that we can’t control contagion adds to our sense of panic and fear. We end up engaging in behaviors that increase our feeling of control, like buying toilet paper and face masks, instead of doing the things that would actually help control the spread of coronavirus and flatten the curve.

We engage in behaviors that increase our feeling of control, like stockpiling toilet paper, instead of doing the things that would actually help control the spread of coronavirus and flatten the curve.

We ignore risks that we can’t see in our everyday lives

On a daily basis, we’re inundated with countless coronavirus articles, memes, infographics and social media posts from unverified people that start to feel like a tangled web of information, misinformation and even some downright lies and conspiracy theories. The graphic below from Information is Beautiful highlights just how much attention the coronavirus outbreak is getting. Thanks to all that extra social media attention, the risks of coronavirus are at the forefront of our minds, creating a sense of urgency and panic that affects our ability to make rational decisions.

In the past few days, there has been a sharp increase in coronavirus diagnoses and a rapid escalation in response. Unfortunately, we’re often reluctant to take action when a risk seems to be located elsewhere, and likely to wait to take action until we “see” it for ourselves in our own communities. But that delay in action can end up causing great harm to our collective health.

Mentions in the media of various outbreaks: 1.1 billion mentions of coronavirus, 56.2 million of SARS, other outbreaks have fewer mentions
Media mentions for coronavirus (Information is Beautiful)

Break the chain of exaggeration

The way we consume information in 2020 often increases the impact of our risk misperceptions. Health claims are sometimes exaggerated in the media, and those exaggerations are in turn filtered, simplified, and amplified through social media algorithms. We end up with a chain of exaggeration where the information that we consume is disconnected from science, evidence, and expert advice.

When you add in the way social media hits us with a constant barrage of information, it’s even harder to answer the question: how worried should we be? And what makes all of this even harder is that deliberate misinformation is often shared alongside accurate facts. 

Luckily, there has also been plenty of good reporting on coronavirus, some of which I have listed at the end of this post.

Chain of exaggeration: from scientific findings to journal articles to press release to news article to social media, each step amplifies fear, loses nuance and loses context

Motivating without panic and fear is a difficult balance

One of the greatest challenges in risk communication is striking a balance between motivating people to take necessary action and avoiding unwarranted panic and fear. Fear is a great motivator, but it tends to motivate people to do just one thing in the moment. That one thing, unfortunately, is not always the right thing. Fear is not an effective motivator for sustaining long term changes in behavior. That’s why it’s a challenge for anyone speaking publicly about this to instill enough of a sense of urgency to spur people to take action, but also convey the risks clearly enough to avoid inducing panic. 

Right now, too many people are either in full panic mode or in some level of denial. Denial can range from those ignoring risks because they are not in a high-risk group to those who think the entire thing is a hoax. Those in full panic are making decisions that may make them feel better but won’t help “flatten the curve”. Meanwhile, people in denial are taking no action at all and that has consequences, too. Refusing to take action, like not practicing appropriate social distancing or washing hands often enough, will thwart efforts to impede the spread of coronavirus.

Pay attention to your biases

In the midst of what feels like constant information and misinformation overload, try your best to be a careful consumer of media. An important first step is to be aware of your biases. Note when your mental shortcuts are leading you astray. By paying attention to our own biases, we’re far more likely to make informed decisions based on evidence rather than fear.

What are the current recommendations?

As of today, March 14, 2020, social distancing is the main course of action. If, like me, you’re wondering exactly what social distancing means, you are not alone. The Dos and Don’ts of ‘Social Distancing’ explains what social distancing might look like for you.

The current evidence-based recommendations from the CDC for the general population to prevent illness include:

  • Clean your hands often.
  • Avoid close contact.
  • Stay at home if you’re sick.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes.
  • Wear a face mask if you are sick.
  • Clean and disinfect.

CDC has also issued special recommendations for people at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19, including older adults (over 60 years of age) and people with serious chronic medical conditions:

  • Stock up on supplies.
  • Take everyday precautions to keep space between yourself and others.
  • When you go out in public, keep away from others who are sick.
  • Limit close contact and wash your hands often.
  • Avoid crowds as much as possible.
  • Avoid cruise travel and non-essential air travel.
  • During a COVID-19 outbreak in your community, stay home as much as possible to further reduce your risk of being exposed.

More details for each item are available on their website. CDC also has information specifically for pregnant women, children, and people staying in homeless shelters.


Data visualizations (cool graphics)