Coronavirus “hits all the hot buttons” for promoting the scientist-as-hero narrative (cognitive psychology edition)

The New York Times continues to push the cognitive-illusion angle on coronavirus fear. Earlier this week we discussed an op-ed by social psychologist David DeSteno; today there’s a news article by that dude from Rushmore:

There remains deep uncertainty about the new coronavirus’ mortality rate, with the high-end estimate that it is up to 20 times that of the flu, but some estimates go as low as 0.16 percent for those affected outside of China’s overwhelmed Hubei province. About on par with the flu.

Wasn’t there something strange . . . about the extreme disparity in public reactions?

While the metrics of public health might put the flu alongside or even ahead of the new coronavirus for sheer deadliness . . . And the new coronavirus disease, named COVID-19 hits nearly every cognitive trigger we have.

That explains the global wave of anxiety.

Wait a second! The article just said that the high-end estimate is that coronavirus could have a mortality rate 20 times that of the flu, and a low-end estimate that is about on par with the flu. Is it really “so strange” to have a wave of anxiety given this level of uncertainty?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that people are rational uncertainty-calculators. In particular, maybe the real lesson here is not that people shouldn’t be scared about coronavirus but that they should be more scared of the flu. But, as in our discussion the other day, I’m concerned about experts who seem so eager to leap up and call people irrational, when it seems to me that it can be quite rational to react strongly to an unknown risk. Even if, in retrospect, coronavirus doesn’t end up being as bad as some of the worst-case scenarios, that doesn’t mean it is a bad idea to be prepared. We don’t want to be picking pennies in front of the proverbial steamroller.

The Times article continues:

But there is a lesson, psychologists and public health experts say, in the near-terror that the virus induces, even as serious threats like the flu receive little more than a shrug. It illustrates the unconscious biases in how human beings think about risk, as well as the impulses that often guide our responses — sometimes with serious consequences.

Experts used to believe that people gauged risk like actuaries, parsing out cost-benefit analyses every time a merging car came too close or local crime rates spiked. But a wave of psychological experiments in the 1980s upended this thinking.




I am so damn sick of the scientist-as-hero narrative. It’s not enough to say that psychologists have learned a lot in the past 50 years about how we think about and make decisions under uncertainty. No, you also have to say that, before then, we were in the dark ages.

Is it really true that “Experts used to believe that people gauged risk like actuaries, parsing out cost-benefit analyses every time a merging car came too close or local crime rates spiked”? Maybe. I guess I’d like to see some quotes before I believe it. My impression is that experts used to believe, and in many cases still do, that parsing out cost-benefit analyses is a decision-making ideal that can be used as a comparison to better understand real decision processes.

But it’s obvious that people don’t “gauge risk like actuaries.” After all, if people really gauged risk like actuaries, we wouldn’t need actuaries! And, last I heard, they get paid a lot.

As with our discussion of that op-ed the other day, I have no problem with this news article regarding the public health details. Indeed, I don’t know anything about coronavirus, and it’s from articles like this that I get my news. The author writes, “Of course, it is far from irrational to feel some fear about the coronavirus outbreak tearing through China and beyond. . . . Assessing the danger posed by the coronavirus is extraordinarily difficult; even scientists are unsure. . . .”, so it’s not like he’s telling us not to worry. And I agree with the message that people should take their damn flu shots. I just don’t like how this interesting, important, and newsworthy story about uncertainty is being used as an excuse for an oversimplified model of decision science. As we’ve discussed earlier, it can be rational to react strongly to an uncertain threat. That scaredy-cat in the above image might be behaving in a smart way.