Science Says: How risky is that virus? Your mind may mislead

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Customers look at sanitizing wipes on the shelves of a pharmacy in New York on Wednesday, March 4, 2020. As coronavirus infections spread across the globe, everybody has to make a decision: How worried should I be about getting infected, and what should I do about it? (AP Photo/Marshall Ritzel)

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Anna Alexander, a property manager in Virginia Beach, Virginia, started the day Monday thinking that she might avoid shaking hands because of the coronavirus outbreak. Then somebody stuck out a hand to shake.

She took it.

“I'm a business person,” Alexander, 65, explained. “But if somebody else does it next time, I might try to be careful because of the coronavirus.”

As the viral infections spread across the globe, everybody has to make a decision: How worried should I be about getting infected, and what should I do about it?

Those decisions can have wide impacts. “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” tweeted U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome M. Adams on Feb. 29. He explained masks aren't effective in protecting the general public “but if healthcare providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!"

The right degree of concern for somebody who lives near a coronavirus hotspot might very well differ from that of somebody who lives far from one. In any case, say experts in how people gauge risk, it's not a simple, cold statistical calculation. Instead, it is colored by our emotions and other psychological factors.

“Emotions are the filters through which we see the facts,” says David Ropeik, a retired Harvard instructor on risk communication.

And this virus outbreak presents a list of “hot buttons ... that ramp up our perception of risk" and sometimes make those perceptions differ from the evidence-based conclusions of medical officials, says Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon.