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Why Some People Think They Aren’t at Risk for Coronavirus

Humans are thought of as rational decision-makers, who make decisions based on the costs and benefits associated with them. But in reality, we take shortcuts when deciding, and most decisions have biases attached.

There have been more than 150,000 deaths from the coronavirus to date, and the CDC today predicted that the number would increase to more than 173,000 by Aug. 22.

But human nature being what it is, those numbers are not the kind of evidence most people need to determine individual risk, and most of us are more likely to believe that it won’t happen to us. Most people need more concrete evidence, such as a story of someone we know who has died from the coronavirus than numbers of people infected.

Humans are thought of as rational decision-makers, who make decisions based on the costs and benefits associated with them. But in reality, we take shortcuts when making decisions, and most decisions are made with biases attached.

“What we direct our attention to is really a rich source of what we end up deciding, and we don’t always direct our attention rationally,” said Dr. Gaurav Suri, a professor of psychology and neuroscientist at San Francisco State University. “And in the case of COVID-19, what I really think is happening is that we live our lives as we’ve always lived them and direct our attention to, ‘I’m OK, my wife is OK, people around me are OK,’ and so there is a lot of evidence every day that things are OK.”

This behavior squares with what emergency managers have known for decades: People tend to need multiple sources of evidence, and they don’t always act to prepare themselves until a disaster hits close to home.

“There tends to be little movement in preparedness, except when people are in close proximity to a disaster,” Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, said in an email. “In general, we see little change in overall preparedness and virtually no change in quality of preparedness plans and kits over time.”

According to Suri, people need that concrete evidence, such as someone they know who has been affected, rather than an abstract report of a number of people who have the coronavirus. “There are a lot of people who say, ‘ Yes I know it’s real and it’s bad and I don’t want to get it,’ but the thing is that at a deep level there is basically a belief that they’re not going to get it because the knowledge that this is even possible is very abstract and removed from us.”

And we live in an individualist society that promotes individual freedoms, and that is resulting in different messages being sent by people in authority. And individualist societies tend to value those freedoms more than sacrificing for the good of the community, Schlegelmilch said.

“Public health also suffers from what age-old challenge of how to prove something works when the evidence of it working is that nothing is happening,” Schlegelmilch said. “When you layer on to that elected officials downplaying the threat of COVID-19 or flat-out spreading false information about the disease, ii fosters additional doubt about the magnitude of the threat.”

Suri said that more than reciting the number of people infected, media and public health agencies should be showing the stories of individuals who are suffering or have suffered from the disease to bring that feeling home to individuals.

“People are under the mistaken assumption that you either die from COVID-19 or you don’t die and you’re fine,” Suri said. “That’s not true. Even when people don’t die, some of them are deeply affected — they are tired, can’t think clearly and it lasts for weeks at a time.”

He said that until people get this concrete evidence with stories, pictures and so forth and not this continual stream of numbers on a screen, people will continue not to take it as seriously as they should. “I’m not going to criticize my leaders, but if we get the right leadership messages of unity and meeting a common enemy and national pride, these are powerful levers to try to get us there,” Suri said. “If we continue to use this as an issue to divide us, we will remain divided.”