Sunday, March 15, 2020

Coronavirus and COVID-19

A View from Behavioral Science

The coronavirus situation has been keeping me up at night. On a personal level it’s been worrisome to follow the spread of the virus since it’s been reported in January. Already early on cases were doubling every few days in China, so with this exponential growth it was clear that it was highly contagious, and could pose a great threat to lots of people very soon. Yet, at the time, there seemed to be relatively little concern, both in the media, or when I talked to folks in my personal and professional circles, which I found curious. 

The situation has also been of great interest to me on a scientific level. As an experimental social psychologist I study how people’s judgments, decisions and behaviors are often swayed by emotional factors, and other processes outside of conscious awareness. We know a lot about people’s blind spots and biases, and that people often don’t follow the ‘rational actor’ model that economists have assumed for a long time. That is the case in general, and especially when we’re confronted with uncertainty, or threats. Then all kinds of thought processes can go haywire, but we often don’t realize it. 

From social and behavioral science we also know a lot about how social contexts influence people’s decisions and behaviors, for better or worse. Practically in everything we do, we are highly attuned to other people. We see them as a source of information, to calibrate our own views, and actions because it’s often useful to look around you to get a sense how other react, to get a sense of what’s going on. We also want to be liked and respected by others. Some of these motivations can in conflict; just because everyone else is doing something, doesn’t make it right. It's easy to be collectively wrong about the world around us. 

The reason I'm following the coronavirus pandemic with great concern that it has very quickly started to affect people’s lives in every single respect: First and foremost, of course, is the concrete threat to one’s health, with a serious risk of death for certain populations. Second, because of its contagiousness, the virus has been compromising social interactions, with individuals and governments implementing more and more ‘social distancing’ measures. Third, the virus has already had tangible effects on people’s livelihoods: Staying at home leads to a loss of wages for many. When supply chains break down, and nobody goes to shops and restaurants, people lose business. This week we’ve already seen stock markets around the world in free fall, with some losses surpassing even the worst days of the Great Depression, and the 2008 financial crisis. On all three fronts it doesn’t look like things will change for the better any time soon. 

So, medical professionals, politicians, scientists and indeed anybody who makes decisions, whether it’s for a country, a company, a family, or just for themselves, now face a dilemma: On the one hand we need to be concerned enough about the coronavirus threat to take actions that could prevent the deaths of thousands of people. On the other hand, we also shouldn’t get so carried away by fear and panic that it becomes counter-productive, for example, by limiting existing social and economic opportunities, because that can also cause harm, especially in the long run. 

Since information flow is no longer restricted to the traditional news media, we’re bombarded with information from sources that vary in trustworthiness and reliability. It’s an unprecedented situation, where the virus has also ‘gone viral’ on social media, and it hard to even keep up with the relevant information, let alone evaluate its usefulness. 

This blog is my attempt to occasionally make sense of what’s going on, both as a concerned citizen, including anecdotally from my own experience, and based on the best available science. Given the topics I study, I can only emphasize that my views are probably colored by the same blind spots and biases that apply to everyone else. I’m certainly no ‘rational actor’, but will do my best to be level-headed, balanced, and represent the relevant science as accurately as I can. 

Another obvious caveat is I’m not a practicing medial professional, i.e., my opinions can’t be taken as medical diagnoses or recommendations. They also don’t necessarily reflect the views of the institutions that I’m affiliated with, namely the University of Cambridge, Jesus College, and the Bennett Institute of Public Policy, nor the journal Royal Society Open Science, for which I'm an editor.

With these disclaimers out of the way, I will let loose. 

Here is the first post, on the White Male Effect: Why Some See Risks Where Others Don’t.

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