October 27, 2020

Why You’re Probably Not So Great at Risk Assessment

As Americans across the country enter their fourth month of social distancing, but now with more options for things to do as states are in various phases of reopening, many of us are doing the math on exactly how cautious we still want to be.

There’s just one problem: Humans are not actually very good at assessing risk — especially their own risk, said Marie Helweg-Larsen, a professor of psychology at Dickinson College.

Complicating things, there are many factors at play in human psychology that can skew our risk perception. Here are the things skewing your assessments:

Optimistic bias. This is a “very, very basic and well-established finding in social psychology, which is that people think that their own risk is less than that of other people’s risk,” said Dr. Helweg-Larsen. Optimistic bias is the reason we order a side of bacon even though we know diets high in processed meats correlate with a higher risk of colon cancer. Surely colon cancer happens to other people, right? Dr. Helweg-Larsen said this phenomenon was found in cultures all over the world. However, people living in heavily individualistic societies — like the United States — tend to exhibit higher levels of optimistic bias.

False sense of control. “The more control people think they have, generally, the less worried they are,” said Dr. Helweg-Larsen. This is why, for many, driving a car seems safer than flying in a plane. The car, of course, is statistically much more dangerous — in 2018, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, 36,560 Americans died in car accidents compared with 381 Americans killed in aviation accidents. So while masks and frequent hand washing are definitely ways to lower your risk of contracting the coronavirus, they may also be emboldening you. Social distancing is still key in preventing the spread of Covid-19.

Unclear cultural cues. We often learn about dangers in the same way from multiple sources. Take smoking, for example. You probably learned about tobacco causing cancer as a kid — either from your parents or from school, said Dr. Helweg-Larsen. The messaging around Covid-19 is less clear because there’s not an existing well of shared cultural knowledge about its dangers. In fact, in some places, public health experts and elected officials are disagreeing on what is and isn’t safe. That means we’re getting a range of cultural cues and we may struggle to parse out which cues to follow.

Confirmation bias. If you are wondering if it is safe to dine outdoors with friends, you may do a search for: “Is dining outside safe during coronavirus?” But, Dr. Helweg-Larsen points out that search is likely to turn up articles about why it is safe to dine outside at this time. “What most people do is that they only seek confirming evidence,” she said, a phenomenon called confirmation bias. If you really want the full breadth of information on dining out, you should also look up “dangers of dining outside during coronavirus.”

Exposure therapy. Many of us are getting used to living in a pandemic. That’s lowering our guard as well. Exposure therapy, or having people confront their fears in tiny doses, is how patients with anxiety-specific phobias are treated, said Ron Acierno, a professor of psychiatry at McGovern Medical School and director of the Trauma and Resilience Center at the University of Texas, Houston. “If you were afraid of dogs but had to work in a puppy store, eventually, you’re going to get used to it.”

Living in the era of coronavirus is, at least to some degree, a very strange course of pandemic exposure therapy. Your first trip to the grocery store in lockdown probably seemed nerve-racking, but if you didn’t get sick, your second trip was probably less scary. Today, you may be mulling over some nonessential errands.

I must admit that I feel less anxious now than I did four months ago — though my risk of contracting Covid-19 in my rural area is higher now than it was in March. What is also playing into our psychology is simply our deep desire to have a sliver of normalcy back in our lives. Dr. Helweg-Larsen said it’s not uncommon to know what you’re about to do is risky but also know that the reward you’ll get from it seems to outweigh the risk. That often tips the scales in the favor of doing a risky behavior. However, she urges all of us to think twice about whether the reward is really worth it, especially now.

Our brains may sometimes be too optimistic. While that isn’t always bad (going through life thinking constantly about every bad thing that could happen isn’t healthy either), in a situation like this, your brain could expose you to unnecessary risk.