Pictures of crowded bars and restaurants could lead one to conclude that people are terrible at understanding risk. After everything we’ve been confronted with over the last six months — images of overflowing hospitals, dozens of stories in newspapers of young healthy people who either died or came near death from COVID-19 — it’s easy to throw up one’s hands, feeling that the majority simply aren’t capable of making good decisions about risk.
It is true that managing health risk is difficult. A new danger sows fear and uncertainty, and it has been generations since most Americans have experienced a public-health crisis (the AIDS epidemic a notable exception). We must also grapple with what economists call externalities: Risk assessment involves estimating not only the likelihood that you will get infected, but also the likelihood that you will infect loved ones or others in your community.
Yet evidence suggests people can make good decisions about risk. Acting with incomplete information is part of everyday life. There is only one requirement: To make good decisions, we need information to be conveyed in a way that aligns with how we naturally experience and think about risk.
But government agencies and the media have centered their communications on anecdotes and abstruse statistics, leaving Americans poorly equipped to rationally adapt to the public-health situation. We are told vivid stories of tail cases, without much context as to how rare they are, that reinforce our tendency to put too much weight on anecdotal evidence. We are given probabilities of hospitalization and deaths without adjustments for risk factors and without analogies to risks that we do understand. For example, we know eating at an outdoor restaurant is riskier than leaving home, but is it less risky than riding a bike in city traffic? The failure to express risk in terms we can understand is dangerous: There is clear evidence that people’s perceptions of the magnitude of a risk can vary significantly depending on whether that risk is described in abstract terms or in a way they can relate to more naturally.
The lack of good risk communication during the pandemic is a major policy failure, comparable to the more tangible shortcomings on test capacity and PPE provision. Until we have a treatment or vaccine, rational behavioral adjustments are our best hope of managing the virus.
One simple strategy to help the public understand probabilities is to frame them as frequencies. The fatality rate, for instance, is the number of people you would expect to succumb to COVID-19 out of a group of 100 infected individuals. When framed as a percentage, though, it seems abstract and remote. Imagine that instead of being told that you had a 0.5 percent chance of death from COVID-19, you were told that of your 400 Facebook friends, you should expect two to die if they all contracted the virus.
Another way to explain a risk is to compare it to other risks with which people have more experience. Risk analogies can be quite powerful in helping us make decisions with a higher degree of confidence. For example, the odds of dying while walking down the street are about 1 in 541, roughly the same as the risk of death from COVID-19 infection for someone aged 20 to 44. Such comparisons equip us to separate personal risks from the risks to others.
One reason we may not hear much about relative risks is that, due to the externalities involved, comparing coronavirus deaths to things like car accidents is considered taboo. If we catch the disease, we can spread it, and, as we know, with COVID-19 the rates of infection can be exponential. But even these risks can be explained using analogies. To get across the key component of exponential growth, we can make analogies to other quickly multiplying phenomena, such as forest fires, the growth of invasive species, or the way that one rotten apple can spoil the bunch. In fact, powerful analogies can make the consequences of our choices more vivid and meaningful; for example, by visualizing how the choice to work from home can affect many more people than just those with whom we work or commute.
To be fair, the risks around COVID-19 have presented a unique challenge. In March, little was known about the virus, but we are now more than six months into the pandemic. There is a history of super-spreader events. There are more reliable data on mortality and individual risk factors, as well as on behaviors to mitigate risks, such as wearing masks. And even if we don’t fully understand how the virus is transmitted, we know more than we used to.
And yet, the CDC website does not offer meaningful risk communication; it merely lists risk factors, without data as to the severity of those factors. High-profile public-health officials offer ominous warnings but little in the way of sustainable ways to live with COVID-19 risks. News reports still tend to highlight stories about individuals experiencing complications without explaining the likelihoods of such complications. It is nearly impossible to find meaningful risk assessments of different activities — say, going to the grocery store or getting your haircut. Even public-health officials won’t take a clear stand on whether a crowded beach is riskier than a large protest.
This leaves non-experts to figure it out based on what they hear from their favored news sources or social-media platforms. It is no wonder some Americans are afraid to leave their homes entirely, while others flock to crowded indoor spaces. Much of the current reporting on COVID-19 requires guesswork to fill in the holes.
It’s not realistic to leave it to the government to manage all our risks. Government has a responsibility to regulate or ban the riskiest activities, but it can’t eliminate all COVID-19 risk. America is too large, diverse, and interconnected. We also can’t all stay at home until there’s a vaccine, unless we want to ignore the heavy emotional toll of social isolation and the inevitable destruction of our economy. Instead, we must rely on our fellow citizens to make smart risk decisions. Some will make reckless choices and others will be overly cautious, no matter how much information they are given. But we can at the very least reduce some of COVID-19’s spread if those who want to act responsibly are given the tools to do so. For that to happen, they need better information.
Allison Schrager is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of An Economist Walks Into a Brothel. Jessica Hullman is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science with a joint appointment in Journalism at Northwestern University.