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Loud and Clear: Combatting Biases in Communicating Risk

As many parts of the world are in stages of reopening, there are varying attitudes concerning individual and societal risk. The issue of communicating risk to the population is difficult on several levels: many are growing accustomed to the new state of being, are doubtful of the risk to themselves or simply do not have the means to take the precautions. There are several psychological phenomena that are at the heart of many of the decisions being made concerning personal risk. It is important to analyze these to find the most effective way to communicate and reduce these risks for the entire population.

I. Overconfidence Bias

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel prize winning psychologist and economist, commented in an interview that if he could he would eliminate Overconfidence bias as he believed it was the most dangerous decision-making pitfall. Overconfidence bias is the belief that we as individuals are exceptional, or above-average as compared to the rest of the population. While this bias can have positive effects in certain areas (such as inspiring individuals to start their own businesses or pursue a research idea), in a pandemic it can increase the amount of risk seeking decisions made. This bias also appears in the belief that a negative event cannot happen to oneself, or will not. In a pandemic, this sort of thinking is not only incorrect but also can bear great consequences for not just the individual but also the community.

An example of this in the pandemic is the belief that coronavirus cannot harm young people. This modern myth has circulated globally, and manifested itself in many people continuing to socialize and travel (as in the case of the Spring Break celebrations in the United States in March). This line of reasoning also leaves it up to each individual to decide what is considered “young”. Keeping in mind the effects of the overconfidence bias, most people are likely to be overly optimistic when considering their risk profile.

While there is evidence that age is a serious factor in the severity of the illness, it is not the only issue to consider. It is estimated that a large amount of cases of coronavirus are asymptomatic. These individuals, dubbed “super-spreaders” in the media, unknowingly can spread the virus, inadvertently and often indirectly infecting higher risk individuals.

It should be noted that many officials want to avoid general hysteria concerning the virus, as was exhibited early on in the pandemic. Using the following methods however intend to give individuals the tools necessary to mitigate natural biases and make the soundest, safest decision possible.


  1. Anchoring- this is the psychological behavior of setting a bar for oneself to then measure against. If your standard is grounded at 0 cases, then the increase to 2,000 will be tremendously overwhelming and encourage risk mitigating behaviors. As time has gone on, people have begun anchoring to higher numbers and have become unphased by large changes in these numbers. It is important to reinforce the seriousness of higher case counts. If someone is used to 2,000 daily cases and sets this as a standard for “normal”, then they will continue social behaviors despite rising case count.

  2. A similar concept is true when thinking both about the mortality rate of COVID and the current case count. If individuals are anchoring to a very low fatality rate, they should instead look at the numbers for each age group and additional underlying health risk. While a young, healthy individual may not be as affected this might motivate these individuals to temper themselves for the sake of others in their life that may be at higher risk.

  3. Sharing information surrounding the recovery process: It has been shown that the road to recovery for many can be very long and very difficult. For many this can be a process of months that will require physical therapy and prolonged medical attention. Depending on a country’s hospital system, this can also prove to be very expensive as well. Furthermore, there is very little known about the larger long term side effects of the virus. There is new research suggesting that patients who survive severe cases have permanent lung damage and in some cases brain damage as well. This shows a problematic gap that exists between scientific literature and the general public. Perhaps if there was more information about the road to recovery after the virus, they would behave more cautiously. Studies on HIV patients had shown that post diagnosis many patients did not fully understand the implications of their diagnosis which lead to lesser treatment and further risk taking behavior. This information could be critical in people’s decision making: It is proven that an individual has a much stronger emotional response to loss rather than a gain. As such, people remember negative events in more detail and keep risk factors more in mind. Spreading information concerning the process of recovery for even healthy individuals could help mitigate risk seeking behaviors.

II. Settling into the new “normal”

Another factor that is intrinsically woven into risk behaviors in the pandemic is confirmation bias. This behavior occurs when an individual weighs information that serves as evidence for what they already believe, and discount information that may contradict them. If an individual believes that wearing a mask cannot help them, they are likely to value information that confirms this more.

Furthermore, there is the issue of psycho-physical numbing. This is when as time goes on and the case count grows individuals become desensitized to large changes. The first ten cases of coronavirus in an area is often more memorable than the jarring increase of 10,000 to 12,000. Beyond just this, for many individuals, the actual number of cases does not matter to them as much as the proximity of the event. In this case, a large national increase in cases will not be as jarring as new cases in an individual’s circle or neighborhood. This phenomenon is the availability heuristic. The problem here is that in combination, the reaction to the virus is altogether too late.

Finally there is the issue risk homeostasis theory. This theory presented by Gerald Wilde says that when an individual perceives danger they will take less risk. In time, their behavior will lower the risk around them and they will in turn change their behavior, pursuing riskier options. This is a model that can be applied very closely to the coronavirus pandemic. As the case count in many places is lowering, people are resuming going out in public or seeing friends, not considering how swiftly cases can rise again if proper precautions are not taken. In the U.S. this was seen in states like Texas or Georgia, where soon after reopening businesses there was a resurgence in cases. This led the state to once again enforce some of these policies.

Methods to mitigate adaptation to harmful norms:

  1. A method to mitigate these effects could be to highlight specific, local cases in addition to continuing the dissemination of statistical information. While some people are very data driven the stream of numbers that are being released can be overwhelming, or eventually numbing. For many, the raw and human stories of individuals affected in close proximity may be more impactful and more readily understood. This is a strategy also used in major fundraising for research. Oftentimes organizations will choose to highlight a particular patient’s journey and struggle (as opposed to citing statistics of all patients affected) as it is more memorable and can garner a larger response and donations.

  2. Another factor to take into consideration is how people best understand and receive certain types of information. Epstein and Kahneman coined the Affect Heuristic that is the theory that humans rely on a dual-system of thinking: where a part of our brain takes time to make calculations and rational reasoning, and the other part relies on instinct and emotional cues to make decisions.

The implications of this is that humans are more emotional and instinctual than before believed. In this case, it is important to make statements simple, clear and triggering of an emotional response. This theory was put into practice in an effort to deter people from smoking in certain countries. Graphic images and strong messaging were put on cigarette boxes which was proven to be a very successful deterrent. They did also find however that messaging that was too strongly negative was counterproductive as people would ignore the message altogether. While this is a more extreme example, using human-centric emotional cues whether verbal or visual could be a very useful tool to use to encourage people to temper their activities and take care of themselves.




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