Over the course of 2020 we watched COVID-19 shift from a dread risk to a less alarming risk. To some extent, COVID-19 became a mundane risk that we adjusted to and learned to live with. Our initial reactions to COVID-19, and our later discontent but general acceptance reveal interesting ways in which the mind works. Sudden and unexplained deaths and risks are terrifying, while continual risk is to some extent ignored, even if we face greater risk from dangers we ignore.
In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer describes dread risks and our psychological reactions by writing, “low-probability events in which many people are suddenly killed trigger an unconscious psychological principle: If many people die at one point in time, react with fear and avoid that situation.” Dread risks are instances like terrorist attacks, sudden bridge collapses, and commercial food contamination events. A risk that we did not consider is thrust into our minds, and we react strongly by avoiding something we previously thought to be safe.
An unfortunate reality of dread risks is that they distract us and pull our energy and attention away from ongoing and more mundane risks. This has been a challenge as we try to keep people focused on limiting COVID-19 and not simply accepting deaths from the disease the way we accept deaths from car crashes, gun violence, and second hand smoke exposure. Gigerenzer continues, “But when as many or more die distributed over time, such as in car and motorbike accidents, we are less likely to be afraid.” Dread risks trigger fears and responses that distributed risks don’t.
This psychological bias drove the United States into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s and we are still paying the prices for those wars. The shift of COVID-19 in our collective consciousnesses from a dread risk to a distributed risk lead to mass political rallies, unwise indoor gatherings, and other social and economic events where people contracted the disease and died even though they should have known to be more cautious. Reacting appropriately to a dread risk is difficult, and giving distributed risks the attention and resources they deserve is also difficult. The end result is poor public policy, poor individual decision-making, and potentially the loss of life as we fail to use resources in a way that saves the most lives.