Mar 15th 2020

Why What Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Panic

by Gerd Gigerenzer

 

Gerd Gigerenzer is Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

 

BERLIN – No one knows where or how fast a new virus will spread. We cannot calculate the risks with confidence, and we will know only in hindsight whether we overreacted or underreacted. Given this uncertainty, how we respond to a viral outbreak is as crucial as the nature of the pathogen. And how we respond to the COVID-19 coronavirus should be guided by what we have learned from past viral epidemics.

Don’t bet on it. The 2009 swine flu epidemic killed hundreds of thousands, mostly in Africa and Southeast Asia. But in Europe, where the threat was comparatively small, the media updated the death toll and the number of suspected cases on a daily basis. In the United Kingdom, the government predicted that as many as 65,000 citizens might die from the disease. In the end, fewer than 500 died.

Predictably, such daily accounting triggered fear and led politicians to make hasty, ill-advised decisions – such as stockpiling medication – without examining the evidence. All eyes were focused on the new, unknown virus, and not on protecting people from more lethal threats, such as seasonal influenza, which in 2009 killed orders of magnitude more people than swine flu. It still does – as would be clear if the media bombarded us with hourly updates of the flu-related death toll.

Similarly, millions of people, particularly in developing countries, die from malaria and tuberculosis each year. And in the United States alone, hospital-acquired infections kill some 99,000 patients annually. Yet, these unlucky people get next to no attention.

Why are we more scared of what is less likely to kill us?

The psychological principle that makes us fear swine flu, avian flu, or COVID-19, but not the common flu is called fear of dread risks. It is easy to elicit fear of episodes in which many people die within a short interval, such as plane crashes or epidemics. But when just as many or more people die over a longer period – as with car accidents or the seasonal flu – it is difficult to scare the public into wearing seatbelts or getting vaccinated.

Consider the paradigmatic millennial “virus”: terrorism. After the traumatic events of September 11, 2001, many Americans stopped flying and drove instead. It has been estimated that in the 12 months following the attacks, an additional 1,500 people lost their lives on the road while trying to avoid the risk of flying – far more than the total number of passengers who died on the four planes.

Terrorists strike first with physical force, which captures all the attention. Their second strike occurs with the help of our brains – our fear of dread risk that makes us jump from the frying pan into the fire. This second strike can be costly. Within two years of the 9/11 attacks, the US economy had lost over $100 billion, owing to reduced travel, business interruption, and event cancellation, the federal government had spent half a trillion dollars on security measures, and the American people accepted more intrusive state surveillance as a condition of their safety. But an American today is more likely to be shot by a child than blown up by an Islamist terrorist.

It is not only terrorists whom we disproportionately fear. Back in 2009, the Egyptian government ordered all pigs in the country to be slaughtered, even though no cases of swine flu had yet been reported there. The government simply exploited fear of dread risk to persecute Egypt’s small Christian minority.

Today, Asian minorities in the US and Europe are paying the price for COVID-19. Citizens of Asian descent are viewed with suspicion, and Chinese restaurants from Berlin to San Francisco are reporting a drop in business of 50% or more as customers shun them. And, of course, the media have a stake in ringing alarm bells and keeping us glued to their pages, platforms, programs, and podcasts.

Fortunately, disproportionate fear of things that are unlikely to kill us is not hardwired into our brains. That is why risk literacy is so important. We need to be taught the mathematics of uncertainty, meaning statistical thinking. Just as being able to read enables people to understand texts, so statistical thinking enables us to understand and manage the risks we face.

Part of risk literacy is learning why we fear what we fear. In fact, understanding uncertainty and understanding psychology go together. That can help the public ask the right questions – and politicians to make the right decisions.

For example, when swine flu spread, many governments followed the World Health Organization’s advice and stockpiled Tamiflu, a medication that was marketed to protect against the severe consequences of flu. Yet, many expert advisers to the WHO had financial ties to drug manufacturers, and there is still no evidence that Tamiflu is effective. The US wasted over $1 billion, and the UK over £400,000 ($522,000), on this medication – money that instead could have been invested in improving health care.

Even with greater risk literacy, most politicians would need considerable courage to act on the basis of evidence rather than out of fear. But these are precisely the kind of leaders we need and would respect.

Achieving global risk literacy would give everyone a chance to approach situations such as the COVID-19 epidemic with a cooler head. This year’s novel virus will not be the last. As a first step toward confronting the outbreaks to come, we must learn to live with uncertainty, rather than allowing ourselves to be held captive by it.

 

Ç is Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

© Project Syndicate 1995–2020

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "We are feeling the anxiety effects of not one pandemic but two. First, there is the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes us anxious because we, or people we love, anywhere in the world, might soon become gravely ill and even die. And, second, there is a pandemic of anxiety about the economic consequences of the first. These two pandemics are interrelated, but are not the same phenomenon......................a contagion of financial anxiety works differently than a contagion of disease. It is fueled in part by people noticing others’ lack of confidence, reflected in price declines, and others’ emotional reaction to the declines. A negative bubble in the stock market occurs when people see prices falling, and, trying to discover why, start amplifying stories that explain the decline. Then, prices fall on subsequent days, and again and again."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Given the shortage of testing kits for COVID-19 around the world, the current testing regimen includes primarily (if not exclusively) symptomatic patients, making the rate of death appear to be worse than it might actually be. According to the US Centers for Disease Control, asymptomatic persons are not routinely tested, so the prevalence of asymptomatic infection and detection of pre-symptomatic infection is not well understood.[i] Similarly, a high percentage of patients who are either elderly or have underlying medical conditions that make them more susceptible to succumbing to the virus may test positive and die, skewing the rate of death among younger, otherwise healthy individuals. Death rates among persons over 80 years of age have been as high as 20%."
Apr 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Whenever the crisis has passed, there will be numerous studies of what happened and why. The hardest question to face, and one that will be long debated, is how many people died needlessly as a result of Trump’s leadership."
Apr 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Locking down the economy is correctly viewed as a way to buy time to expand capacity and reduce the peak-load demand on health systems. But it is not a complete strategy. Even when combined with monetary accommodation and a large fiscal program geared toward protecting vulnerable people and sectors, an economic deep freeze cannot be sustained without eventually imposing unacceptable costs on individuals and society."
Apr 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s behavior over the past two weeks is exactly what’s wrong with America’s response to COVID-19. Paul has a compromised lung, so he decided that he should be tested for the disease out of an abundance of caution. From the time of his test until he was confirmed positive six days later, Paul did nothing to protect those around him. On the contrary, he met with other senators, cast votes on the Senate floor, played a round of golf at a private club, and even squeezed in a few laps at the Senate pool. In the countries that have contained the coronavirus outbreak, such irresponsible behavior has not been tolerated, and even could have landed Paul in jail. As a physician (ophthalmologist), he, more than anyone, should know that if he was concerned enough about COVID-19 to be tested for it, he should have been equally concerned about the risk he was posing to others."
Mar 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "The absence of effective federal oversight and management of the COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly be judged by historians as the biggest US governmental calamity of all time."
Mar 29th 2020
EXTRACT: " South Korea is one of the world’s most advanced countries........... But so, too, is the United States. Why, then, has the US lagged so far behind in its response to the pandemic? The short answer is that the US has a president who is fundamentally unfit for the job, both intellectually and temperamentally."
Mar 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "A large part of the fallout to date – particularly on stock markets – has actually been from negative sentiment rather than real effects."
Mar 24th 2020
EXTRACT: ".........every component of aggregate demand – consumption, capital spending, exports – is in unprecedented free fall. While most self-serving commentators have been anticipating a V-shaped downturn – with output falling sharply for one quarter and then rapidly recovering the next – it should now be clear that the COVID-19 crisis is something else entirely. The contraction that is now underway looks to be neither V- nor U- nor L-shaped (a sharp downturn followed by stagnation). Rather, it looks like an I: a vertical line representing financial markets and the real economy plummeting..............The risk of a new Great Depression, worse than the original – a Greater Depression – is rising by the day."
Mar 24th 2020
EXTRACT: "President Donald Trump and US policymakers have thus far favored piecemeal measures, especially when it comes to the state directing – indeed, reorganizing – the private sector. Their instinctive belief in the superiority of the market and private initiatives, regardless of the circumstances, leads them to recoil from the scale of government intervention needed to save our lives and livelihoods."
Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "Back in July 2019, while in Michigan for one of the early Democratic Party presidential debates, I was invited to a small dinner with Bernie Sanders. Toward the end of the meal, those who remained at the table included actor/activist Danny Glover, Dr. Cornel West, former Mayor Gus Newport, Jane Sanders, and a few key campaign staffers. What ensued was a free-flowing discussion of the agents of social and political change, sprinkled with personal recollections of and lessons learned from historical figures – many of whom had been known by my dinner companions.......I came away from that evening seeing Bernie Sanders in a different light. He was, and still is, a candidate for the presidency of the United States. At the same time, he must also be seen as a transformative figure in modern American political history."
Mar 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Why are we more scared of what is less likely to kill us? The psychological principle that makes us fear swine flu, avian flu, or COVID-19, but not the common flu is called fear of dread risks. It is easy to elicit fear of episodes in which many people die within a short interval, such as plane crashes or epidemics. But when just as many or more people die over a longer period – as with car accidents or the seasonal flu – it is difficult to scare the public into wearing seatbelts or getting vaccinated."
Mar 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "But if containment measures fail – as we are seeing in Italy just now – the banks may still end up in trouble. They may also stop lending again, in which case the asset bubbles would collapse and a long-term recession would become a certainty. Central banks and governments would have to step in with more assistance: as well as further interest rate cuts, they look likely to try more QE and potentially bailouts like in 2007-09 if necessary. But given the limited scope this time around, if the global economy stalls for the long term, these measures might still fail and central bankers could potentially lose control of the marketplace altogether. In such a situation, we would be in truly uncharted territory." PICTURE BELOW: WORLD DEBT.
Mar 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "The Russian resistance appears to have derived from fears that if they cut back exports and OPEC managed to keep the price high, US petroleum firms using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) would simply rush in to grab Russian markets in Europe........So the theory that Russia provoked the price fall to harm US fracking companies is incorrect. They provoked it to avoid being harmed by the American producers, as they saw it."
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "I was recently walking along East 29th Street in Manhattan, after visiting a friend at Bellevue Hospital, when I was roused from my thoughts by a middle-aged white male screaming at an old Chinese man, “Get the fuck out of my country, you piece of Chinese shit!” The old man was stunned. So was I, before I bellowed back (deploying the full range of my native Australian vocabulary), “Fuck off and leave him alone, you white racist piece of shit!”  The pedestrian traffic stopped. A young white guy with dark hair came storming toward me. As a non-pugilist by instinct and training, I braced for what was coming. He stopped just short of me and said, “Thank you for standing up for him. That’s why I fought in Iraq; so that people like him could be free.” "
Mar 6th 2020
EXTRACTS: "Dreyfus was originally arrested and convicted on charges of selling military secrets to Germany – France’s historical enemy. But because he was a Jew, his guilt was assumed from the start, particularly by most of the French officer corps. To ensure that the charges would stick, various conspirators fabricated evidence against Dreyfus, including a secret file that only the judges who handed down the conviction and prison sentence were allowed to see........In the Dreyfus Affair, a savagely right-wing press fanned the flames of anti-Semitism and intrigue among elites, just as Fox News does today against Trump’s enemies. Owing to these malign efforts, truth itself becomes blurred,........Most depressing of all, though, is the fact that no senior figure in the US has come forward to stand alongside Vindman. There has been no Zola to issue the equivalent of the famous “J’Accuse!” pamphlet, shaming the country’s complicit elites for their lies and corruption. Instead, men like former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, and former National Security Adviser John Bolton have put their personal interests first, remaining mostly silent......"
Mar 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "After nearly four years of inveighing against the US intelligence officials and analysts who revealed Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, Donald Trump is finally acting fully on his paranoia by carrying out a purge. "
Mar 3rd 2020
EXTRACTS: "........the next global recession could be around the corner – and that it may look a lot different from those that began in 2001 and 2008.........unlike the two previous global recessions this century, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, implies a supply shock as well as a demand shock. ..........In contrast to recessions driven mainly by a demand shortfall, the challenge posed by a supply-side-driven downturn is that it can result in sharp declines in production and widespread bottlenecks. In that case, generalized shortages – something that some countries have not seen since the gas lines of 1970s – could ultimately push inflation up, not down."
Feb 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "The EU must ask itself if it is prepared to do what is necessary to remain an independent player, united in the common interest of all Europeans. Otherwise, Europe’s viability as a democratic, sovereign entity in control of its own destiny will be called into question – and therefore tested by adversaries – like never before."
Feb 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "The world economy has clearly caught a cold. The outbreak of COVID-19 came at a particularly vulnerable point in the global business cycle. ...........This matters little to the optimistic consensus of investors. After all, by definition shocks are merely temporary disruptions of an underlying trend. While it is tempting to dismiss this shock for that very reason, the key is to heed the implications of the underlying trend. The world economy was weak, and getting weaker, when COVID-19 struck. The V-shaped recovery trajectory of a SARS-like episode will thus be much tougher to replicate – especially with monetary and fiscal authorities in the US, Japan, and Europe having such little ammunition at their disposal. That, of course, was the big risk all along. In these days of dip-buying froth, China’s sneeze may prove to be especially vexing for long-complacent financial markets."