By now, we’ve all seen the pictures and read the headlines. Coronavirus is real and its impact is growing.
How concerned should we be about the chance of infection? That’s difficult to say, but one thing is for sure: panic is not the answer.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what we tend to do in situations like these. Flawed judgment takes over. We overreact. We suspect that we might already be infected. We prepare for the worst. Irrational impulses drown out level-headed thinking.
In fact, there is a lot of psychological research to explain how and why this happens. Below are three cognitive biases that make us perceive the threat of Coronavirus as worse than it actually is.
#1: Things that are easily imagined are judged as more likely to happen.
Have you ever worried about being attacked by a shark? If the answer is yes, you are not alone. Almost everyone who swims in the ocean has, at some point, imagined the threat of a shark attack. Why? Not because the odds are high, but because we’ve seen the movie Jaws, we watch Shark Week every summer, and we hear about the occasional shark attack on the news. The idea of a shark attack is easy to imagine and we therefore think it could happen to us.
The same is true of Coronavirus. With hundreds of stories being published on Coronavirus every day, we are naturally led to believe that the epidemic is bigger, closer, and more dangerous than it actually is.
How can we combat this type of flawed reasoning? One way is to take a more passive interest in the news rather than being glued to the TV or reading every new Coronavirus headline that is published. This will make Coronavirus less top-of-mind, and therefore less threatening. Another is to engage in the following exercise. Ask yourself if you know anyone, personally, who has contracted the illness. If the answer is no (which it likely is), ask yourself if you know anyone who knows anyone who has been infected. If the answer to both of these questions is no, then rest assured that the threat of Coronavirus is less imminent than top-of-mind thinking might lead you to believe.
#2: Intuition is mostly a blessing. In cases like these, it can be a curse.
Our ability to make snap judgments is one of the wonders of the human mind. It allows us to navigate our complicated social environments with relative ease — akin to an airplane flying on autopilot. However, when it comes to math, probabilities, and rational decision making, our intuition can lead us astray. Consider the following brain teaser, popularized by the Nobel Laureate psychologist, Daniel Kahneman:
- A baseball bat and a ball cost $1.10 together. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Your answer? If you relied on intuition, you probably guessed 10 cents. Most people do. It takes a bit of deep thinking, however, to arrive at the correct answer, which is 5 cents.
Taking some time to do the math behind the Coronavirus might help to quell any hysteria you might be experiencing. And, it may be best to start with a simple calculation. There are about 7.5 billion people in the world. According to the New York Times, approximately 100,000 people have been infected as of yesterday. That means the current odds of anyone in the world contracting the virus is approximately 1 in 75,000. Combine that with the fact that few people who contract the virus actually become seriously ill and you can see how irrational the hysteria really is.
3#: Existential threats often receive more attention than they deserve.
Millions of years of evolution has endowed us with a cognitive architecture that is especially attuned to environmental threats. It’s how we were able to survive, and multiply, in dangerous environments such as the African Serengeti. While this phenomenon, known as the “negativity bias,” works wonders to keep us safe in threatening or unknown environments, it can also produce unnecessary worry. Be cognizant of the fact that your mind has this built-in survival mechanism. Be thankful for it, but give your rational mind the green light to turn it off when it is safe to do so.
Conclusion: Take a deep breath. Coronavirus is almost certainly not coming for you. And, even if it were, panic is not the answer. Wash your hands, continue enjoying your life, and leave the rest to chance. In this case, it’s on your side.
Mark Travers is a contributor for Forbes and Psychology Today, where he writes about psychology, human potential, and the science of success. Mark holds a B.A. in psychology, magna cum laude, from Cornell University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder. His academic research has been published in leading psychology journals and has been featured in the New York Times and The New Yorker, among other popular publications. Mark has worked in a variety of industries, including journalism, digital entrepreneurship, international education, and marketing research. Stay current with all of Mark’s articles, interviews, and insights by subscribing to his newsletter, the Weekly Top Three, here: tinyletter.com/markwtravers.
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