Humans and Risk

We’ve already talked about how our media, with it lust for clickbait, and our disorganized leadership, both politicians with political agendas and bureaucrats with bureaucratic agendas, have stoked unnecessary fear and anxiety in the United States (and probably in other countries too), over “coronavirus” and “COVID-19.”

This is not to say that there should be NO concern over this or, indeed, any other infectious agent.

Sometimes people get mad when this respiratory virus is compared to other very serious respiratory viruses, such as influenza. Maybe this is because they think that this somehow is trivializing what they are going through. Nothing here and now that we are going to talk about in this essay could be further than the truth.

Instead, we are calling America out for its unwarranted complacency, every year, in the face of a disease that kills 50,000 or 60,000 mostly older or sicker people EVERY YEAR. EVERY YEAR upwards of 20 MILLION Americans are infected. Yet we haven’t, pardon the language, given a shit.

We’ve worked when we are sick, sent our children to school dosed up with ibuprofen, gone directly to a hospital or nursing home or to visit a frail elderly relative right after a plane ride, sporting event or concert, not taken a flu shot, and cheerfully coughed and sneezed directly into our hands, then placed said hands, now covered with snot and germs, on every available surface.

How many preventable deaths were we enabling?

Why are we so bad at this?

Human response to risk depends on a variety of factors, but the two most important are familiarity and control.

Familiarity means that if we’ve lived with a possible risk for a period of time and it hasn’t hurt us, then we tend to spend less time and energy attending to that risk. Survival-wise, that makes sense. Humans in the wild only had so much time and energy to spare, and if they spent it all worrying constantly about squirrels, trees, rocks and clouds, a saber-toothed tiger would get them.

In a more complex and technological society this isn’t always so helpful. We are usually not killed in an automobile accident, so we tend not to do things that would easily reduce those risks. For example, if we put “governors” or motor vehicles so that the top speed possible was 35 miles per hour, we would have almost no motor vehicle related deaths. It wouldn’t be zero because people can be quite creative in finding ways to put themselves in harm’s way, but it would be much, much less than it is now. And at what cost? Not much—it would just take a few hours longer to drive somewhere far away.

But none of us want that, do we? We’ve become inured to the risk. That’s because, if you’re reading this, you haven’t been killed in a motor vehicle accident, despite most likely years of experiences of driving and/or being driven places. Long familiarity has led you to discount the risk, to the point where you will reject any inconvenience, however minimal, that might affect you. You probably don’t drive in a state of abject fear, either.

The feeling, warranted or not, of being in control of your risk is also important.

This is where the “just worlders” come from. Those are the people who respond to every tragedy with comments like “well, if she’d been watching her children correctly, they wouldn’t of drowned,” or “she shouldn’t have gone to that party/worn those clothes/gotten drunk,” and so on. The idea of control is very necessary to some people.

Control is also about choices. The more you feel like you are choosing to assume a risk, the more accepting of that risk you can be. If you choose to go surfing, you might get bitten by a shark. Those who don’t want to get bitten can choose not to surf. So, this causes us little or no anxiety in our day to day lives. Either we’re okay with a certain level of risk and do the activity anyway, or we don’t do it.  The feeling of control, or making a choice to assume a particular risk, lowers our anxiety.

In the real world, our anxiety level about a risk is often a combination of familiarity and control. If you live in Florida, you live around a lot of alligators. Sometimes they attack people and they have strong jaws and can move faster than a human can, at least over short distances. You don’t have to been in or very near water either. Alligators lack a certain element of control. But they do have familiarity. People in Florida have spent years around alligators, so they have some idea of how they act, and generally speaking neither they or their loved ones have been attacked. However, they probably worry more about alligators than they do about dying in a motor vehicle accident, even though alligator attacks are extremely rare, and motor vehicle accidents (especially in Florida) are extremely common. It’s short of a mid-sized worry, balancing the familiarity, which we are hard wired to use to reduce concern, with the lack of control, which enhances our worry.

Now take something that has the appearance of being outside of our control and also unfamiliar. That brings the highest level of fear. When the world is full of breathing people how do you avoid exposure to a respiratory virus? It’s not respecting your lifestyle choices at all. We all know about diseases which currently cause many, many more deaths and cases every year in the world than “coronavirus” ever would or could. Diseases such as depression, tuberculosis, malaria, HIV and hepatitis C. But people feel that depression is something people should just “get over,” or that these disease risks can be modified by lifestyle choices, and so this (false) impression lowers anxiety. But you can tell yourself that you don’t do needle drugs, or have promiscuous sex, or travel to tropical countries, but you can’t decide not to breathe.

And if it’s a “new” virus, or one that is constantly forced on our attention by a massive hype machine, we have no familiarity either.

You’ll notice that neither of these factors allows for much rational titration of risk. They are designed by evolution/theory of your choice to motivate people to rapid avoidance of dangerous objects or potentially dangerous unknowns in their immediate vicinity.

That last is also important, because the current infosphere also creates a false sense of vicinity. This has been studied before. Although actual rape, murder, and violent crime rates are way below what they were fifty years ago, but because you can watch twenty-four-hour news channels and surf the net, you get reports of crimes from all over the world. Therefore, there seems to be a lot of activity that threatens your safety, going on all the time, thus increasing your anxiety. In reality, a horrific crime in India, if you live in the United States, is not relevant to the safety of your immediate environment, although it may be meaningful in other ways. But because your brain still believes that anything it knows about happened close by, it drives up your hardwired protective anxiety.

So, given these factors, it’s no wonder that in addition to a coronavirus “pandemic,” we’ve also got a coronavirus “panic” or “coronapanic” going on.

Obviously, we are not suggesting that nobody should worry about coronavirus, or that nothing can or should be done about it. However, we’ve sounded off plenty in this blog about some of the problems with the United States readiness and response to this infection.

The problem with coronapanic is that over-excited, frightened people are not good at making realistic risk assessments. You will also have noticed that nothing in the driving factors in human anxiety about risks lends itself to accurate stratification of risk, either.

This can lead people to endorse or practice unhelpful or counterproductive measures, or to do something simply for the sake of doing something. And this comes with a cost. There is only so much time, money and energy available for interventions, and therefore ill-thought out or ineffective ones take away time, money and energy from things that might work. There is also collateral damage to consider. If something works well, then it might be reasonable to accept the downside of an intervention. But if it doesn’t, or we don’t know what it will do? That’s another story.

By the way, if you think that the threat posed by coronavirus represents a new situation in your life, you are not correct. This may not make you feel any better, but since the day you arrived on this planet, you have been living in a world where you are surrounded by infectious agents that usually your immune system can handle, or which only inconvenience you, but rarely can make you very sick or even kill you. Every time in your life you have gone to the store, visited a friend, or a hospital, attended a religious service, gone on vacation and flown on a plane, gone to college, gone to work or indeed just lived your life you have been surrounded by viruses and other infectious agents. Usually, they don’t make you very sick or kill you. But every day of your life you have been exposed to ones with the potential, even if it’s rare for you, to kill you, or that you could carry back to sicken and maybe kill vulnerable people around you. That is never going to change. Disease causing organisms are always going to around.

In the past, we probably took a too lackadaisical approach to these real, if mostly dangerous to the vulnerable, threats. Now, we seem at times to be overcorrecting and wasting some of our energy in non-productive ways.

What should be our best practices going forward?

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