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A bug in the system

Mark Davies

April 3, 2020

Mark Davies (pictured) is managing director of Link Mortgage Services

From the here and now to the future, how we handle risk really matters yet our way of doing so is still largely unchanged.

COVID-19 is already affecting the lives of the entire country to one extent or another and it is difficult to see beyond the here and now.

It is far from irrational to feel some fear about the outbreak. But there are lessons in some of the near-terror that the virus induces about the unconscious biases in how human beings think about risk, as well as the impulses that often guide our responses and future behaviours.

People often use instinctive mental shortcuts for measuring danger. While these have served us well through evolution, they are a broad brush to address very specific and often unique problems and consequently can be inaccurate. 

When we encounter a potential risk, our brains conduct a quick search for past experiences with it. If we retrieve alarming memories, then we conclude the danger is high.

But we often fail to assess whether those memories are truly representative. This happens with plane crashes. If aviation accidents happen in quick succession, flying feels scarier. When we subsequently fly and nothing goes wrong, we conclude flying is safe.

Is COVID-19 causing us to think in a similar way? We hear about the fatalities and the spread across countries but we hear little about the 98 percent or so of people who are recovering from it and may have had mild cases.

Yet when it comes to Flu which has killed on average 17,000 in England annually for the past five seasons, 2014/15 to 2018/19, most peoples’ experiences of it are relatively mundane.

Being told how dangerous flu is does little to change this attitude and encourage vaccination studies find. 

We are conditioned to focus heavily on new threats, which can lead us to obsess over the scariest reports and worst-case scenarios, making the danger seem bigger still.

Our brains translate gut emotional reactions into what we believe are reasoned conclusions. If a risk seems especially painful or disturbing, people tend to raise their estimate of how likely it is to happen to them. 

Also, risks that we take on voluntarily, or that at least feel voluntary, are often regarded as less dangerous than they really are. One study found that people will raise their threshold for the amount of danger they are willing to take on by a factor of one thousand if they see the risk as voluntary.

If that number sounds high, consider driving – a danger we take on voluntarily. There were 27,820 killed or seriously injured casualties in reported road traffic accidents for the year ending June 2019. Terrorism, a threat imposed on us, kills far fewer.

There are countless rational reasons that terrorism provokes a sharper response than traffic deaths. The same goes for a fast-spreading and little-understood outbreak versus the familiar flu.

All of these things play on our feelings and that’s the representation of threat for us.

We should remember that very often we are not acting upon the statistics of risk, but the feelings of risk.


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