“Brain Tricks” During COVID-19 Pandemic


Risk and uncertainty are fundamental to decision analysis, and risk perception plays a key role in pandemic-era decisions. CHDS faculty Eve Wittenberg and Lisa Robinson discussed the influence of risk perception in decisions during COVID-19 in a ProPublica article, How Your Brain Tricks You into Taking Risks during the Pandemic.

While the wide variability in risk-taking behavior with mask-wearing and social distancing might seem unexplainable, in fact, “people are rational and weigh the costs and benefits when they make decisions,” reported Wittenberg. “[People] have no experience thinking through a pandemic and are also getting mixed and conflicted messages from leaders, [which] creates uncertainty and can lead people to rely on patterns of risk perception that may not be accurate.”

“People may be more likely to participate in riskier activities because they tend to behave according to the norms that surround them” reported Robinson, citing smoking behavior from years ago versus now, as the norm has shifted from a desirable to an undesirable behavior. “We take a lot of cues from our environment,” she explained.

Also at play is the “availability heuristic”, which explains people’s tendency to consider things that they can recall instances of as more risky than things further from their minds (less “available”). Hearing constant ambulance sirens in New York City in the early months of the pandemic made the threat “real” for New Yorkers, while less-affected areas had no reality check on the potential harm.

Wittenberg explained further that “[t]he confusion surrounding COVID-19 was magnified by a lack of testing in the early days of the pandemic and then delays in test results, [which] meant people didn’t have clear data to anchor their risk assessment.” She lamented the lack of complete information available to people and the lack of clear communication from authorities about uncertainty.

Learn more: Read the full ProPublica article, How Your Brain Tricks You into Taking Risks during the Pandemic

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