Remember summer vacation? You may still have an out-of-town trip on the books and are considering how to proceed — not an easy decision in the time of coronavirus.
I feel you, with a lesson in assessing risk vs. reward courtesy of my daughter, who planned months ago to go to Colorado to see her BFF. Even as Covid-19 bore down, she held onto her reservations, hoping things would change.
Things did indeed shift, with infection rates now spiking across the West. As I listened to her 87 reasons why she’d be just fine as long as she wore a mask, I realized that the pandemic had surfaced one undeniable truth:
Humans suck at risk assessment.
If you want to place blame somewhere, witness our bias-embracing brains. My daughter’s summer trip is the perfect example of both a false sense of control and an optimistic bias, as she’s sure that she’s at much less risk than others.
From all of her Googling about “how safe is plane travel?” she was able to support her confirmation bias that it’s reasonably safe. Meanwhile, my searching quickly turned up a list by the Texas Medical Association that deems flying as a “moderate to high” risk.
Then again, it’s not entirely personal biases that color the decision-making process. Unclear cultural cues make risk assessment tricky.
The messaging around Covid-19 is less clear because there’s not an existing well of shared cultural knowledge about its dangers. In fact, in some places, public health experts and elected officials are disagreeing on what is and isn’t safe. That means we’re getting a range of cultural cues and we may struggle to parse out which cues to follow.
And finally, five months of living through a pandemic is exposure therapy in action. Since we confront fears daily, we’re letting down our guard — which doesn’t help us make smart decisions. (Hello, upward-trending infection rates.)
Beat your biases
Knowing that your mind skews perceptions isn’t enough to improve your risk assessment abilities. Given that the threat of my daughter’s meltdown felt worse than a pandemic, it's clear I was framing things too narrowly. So I called my best friend, a public health official in Vermont who’s leading the state’s Covide-19 education effort, for advice.
She helped me assess the risk vs. the reward — catching the virus weighed against my daughter’s mental health — and came up with a plan that involved medical-grade layers of protection and strict isolation until a confirmed negative result once she gets home.
While we can’t count on the outcome we desire, at least we went through the paces to make an informed choice. In my opinion, we’ve already made the right decision. Then again, maybe I’m biased.
Why You’re Probably Not So Great at Risk Assessment (New York Times)