Risk and the Psychology of the New COVID-19 Surge

The rising number of COVID-19 cases has many causes, including the question of how many are being found due to increased testing capacity. (Likely answer: some, but not all. Hospitalizations are also rising, which means more people are getting sick at levels that would have been detected in the virus’s first surge.)

But another part of the answer has to do with what, in retrospect, should have been a predictable aspect of public psychology: as the pandemic has dragged on, COVID-19 has gone from new and frightening to “normal.”

One of the more esoteric fields I’ve dabbled in over the years is the psychology and economics of risk.

Psychologists have found that our fear reactions do not correlate well to the actual risks posed by a given hazard. Economics has confirmed this by noticing how people, in spending money to guard against risks, tend to spend disproportionate amounts on various types of risks.

Two examples are air travel and bicycle helmets.

There was a time, decades ago, when you could buy flight insurance in airports, before boarding a plane. It wasn’t like today’s flight insurance, which refunds your money if something goes wrong with your travel plans: this was life insurance that paid off if your plane crashed and you died in transit.

If I recall correctly, it cost the modern equivalent of about $20-$30–per flight. Enough people were sufficiently scared of air travel that this was a successful business–especially because even then, air travel was extremely safe, so the insurance company almost never had to pay off.

At the same time (again, this was a while ago), it was almost impossible to get adults to buy bicycle helmets. And much as I enjoy bicycling, bicycling without a helmet is vastly more dangerous than flying.

This means that there are certain types of risks we tend to react to very strongly…and others to which we give a big yawn.

The super-scary ones tend to be those that are outside of our control and which produce big headlines when they strike, hit people in large groups, and/or involve things we don’t really understand. Airplanes are historically a good example: when we board them, we surrender control. When they crash, it’s big news, and often everyone dies. If you’re even remotely afraid of flying, it’s hard to get those images out of your mind.

On the other hand, bicycling (or driving a car) is actually a fairly risky endeavor. If we live long enough, we all wind up knowing someone who died in a car crash or got concussed (or worse) in a bicycle accident. But these are at the opposite end of the psychological spectrum.

Both are very familiar, well-understood activities, and most importantly, we think we are in control. If I’m a good enough driver, I can avoid the risk. (Which is silly. A few days ago, I could have died when someone missed a red light and blew through an intersection at full speed, 20 seconds after the light had changed. It wasn’t skill on my part that saved me, just fortunate timing.)

What does this have to do with COVID-19?

Simple. When the pandemic first started to rise, it was fairly easy to take it seriously. It was new, poorly understood, hitting people in large enough groups that bodies were piling up in Madrid–a perfect recipe for being very, very scary.

This does not mean we overreacted. In fact, I think we were a bit slow to react. There is an entirely different, equally interesting psychology about how people respond to sudden, extremely obvious threats, like an ongoing earthquake. The bottom line is that it takes a bit of time for the event to affect their sense of normality, and there is less panic than you might think.

What it does mean is that once the virus got our attention, most of us reacted.

Then days of fear turned into weeks of quarantine, followed by months of not seeing anyone we personally knew die of it.

And gradually, we came to take it as something normal. Something that won’t happen to me–just as most drivers presume they won’t be the ones to die in a car accident.

We shifted from being afraid of it to accepting it as part of the new normal, something that happens to other people, not us or our families–exactly the type of risk we are psychology geared to minimize.

I’d like to end this post here, but I need to add one final note. I said a lot of “we” and “us” above. Don’t read that as “you.” What I’m wanting to emphasize is that the things I’m talking about are generically human–things that, by the way, transcend Red state/Blue state politics. Yes, politics is an issue, but that’s not the topic of this post.

If you want to read more on the psychology of risk, one of the leading lights in the field is Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon, who you can find here.

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