In battling the coronavirus, will ‘optimistic bias’ be our undoing?


As the coronavirus has fanned throughout the globe, some folks have been extra complacent in regards to the danger of contracting the virus than others.

On March 21, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was apoplectic after images emerged of New Yorkers congregating in parks, apparently ignoring mandates for social distancing.

“It’s insensitive, it’s arrogant, it’s self-destructive, it’s disrespectful and it has to stop now,” Cuomo stated. “This is not a joke, and I am not kidding.”

Where does this complacency come from? Why are so many refusing to alter their habits and going about their day as if every little thing had been regular?

It may should do with a well-documented phenomenon referred to as the “optimistic bias,” which I’ve researched extensively as a social psychological scientist. Essentially, it refers to when folks see themselves as much less prone to danger than others. We assume, for instance, that we’re much less in danger than different folks of getting a stroke, getting injured in a automotive accident or getting divorced. Smokers know that smoking is harmful however nonetheless assume they’re much less in danger than different people who smoke of getting lung most cancers.

We’re seeing this similar phenomenon play out with the coronavirus.

A latest examine of greater than 4,000 Europeans in France, Italy, the U.Okay. and Switzerland confirmed that about half of the individuals thought they had been much less doubtless than different folks of getting contaminated. And solely 5% of respondents thought they’d be extra more likely to change into contaminated.

Is that as a result of persons are delusional? Hardly. Earlier this month, a examine of almost 1,600 Americans discovered that folks thought their very own private danger was growing, however they noticed everybody else’s danger additionally growing. Therefore, folks nonetheless thought they had been personally much less in danger than different folks.

Why do folks are likely to downplay dangers to themselves?

Personal experiences play a giant function. For now, coronavirus can appear distant and much away. Without viscerally experiencing it – both by contracting it your self or seeing an in depth good friend or member of the family change into contaminated – danger of an infection might be onerous to understand. In truth, my analysis discovered that individuals who had skilled an earthquake up shut – as residents of Los Angeles did in 1994 – weren’t optimistically biased that they might keep away from damage from a future one. However they had been optimistically biased about rising unscathed from pure disasters they hadn’t skilled, akin to a flood.

For this motive, I’d count on the optimistic bias for the coronavirus to be smaller or absent in areas with excessive casualties the place the virus has hit “close to home.”

In common, optimism is an effective coping mechanism. It offers us a way of management, and reduces our nervousness, after we assume that unhealthy stuff occurs to different folks, however to not us.

But within the case of a pandemic just like the coronavirus, should you don’t assume one thing unhealthy goes to occur to you, you may not hassle altering your behaviors. That’s precisely what a U.S. examine on the coronavirus discovered: Personal danger notion was the most effective predictor of whether or not folks washed their fingers or engaged in social distancing. Similarly, analysis on the H1N1 virus confirmed that personally believing you had been in danger predicted participating in additional avoidance behaviors.

Risk perceptions might be onerous to alter, however one technique is to contemplate socially distancing and staying at residence as ethical decisions. Causing hurt to others is often seen as immoral particularly if the victims are seen as susceptible and in want of safety, just like the aged.

In my very own analysis on smoking, the extra people who smoke agreed it was immoral to smoke as a result of it may hurt others, the better they noticed their very own private danger. These individuals had been probably the most involved in quitting.

What’s tough with all dangers – together with the coronavirus – is that you just don’t essentially know or see the potential hurt to different folks from your individual conduct. If you don’t assume you’re contaminated, you may not assume it issues to keep away from interacting along with your grandmother. So the uncertainty of an infection leaves you open to danger minimization and rationalization. But turning the motion from considered one of private danger to considered one of ethical alternative may interrupt the danger minimization course of and enhance preventative behaviors.

It’s potential to undertake an optimistic “we’ll get through this” perspective whereas nonetheless taking all of the beneficial precautions.

[Get facts about coronavirus and the latest research. Sign up for our newsletter.]