What we can learn about risk from the Covid experience

Life is risky and tends to end in death, which makes it easy to become paranoid – about the food you eat, the air you breathe or the strangers you walk past in the street.
But what should we really fear, whether as individuals or collectively?
After a year of lockdowns and millions of deaths this question is very much in the air as countries weigh up the risks of new strains of the coronavirus and the potential harms from further lockdowns.
Evolution made us highly attuned to risks such as spiders or snakes.
But we’re not so good at handling the risks of modern life and our governments are sometimes just as incompetent.
The surprising claim of social science is that what we fear – and how much we fear it – is in part a matter of choice.
Your ancestors were terrified of going to hell or being cursed.
Many of us are probably much more worried about being given cancer by a fizzy drink or the whole world going up in smoke because of climate change.
Research shows that we exaggerate fears of things that are dramatic, immediate and easy to visualise, and where we don’t have any control – like terrorism or air crashes.
But we generally underestimate risks that are slow and invisible (like climate change) or where we think we are in control, like driving which may actually be much more dangerous (in the US about one in a hundred people is likely to die in a car crash and even more now die of opioid overdoses). Media coverage feeds these imbalances. The BSE “mad cow disease” scare peaked in the 1990s and led to the culling of millions of cows at a cost of nearly 40 billion pounds. Yet the numbers of people who died in Europe from it during that decade (about 150) were roughly equal to the number who died from drinking scented lamp oils in the same period.
The great anthropologist Mary Douglas showed half a century ago – and counter-intuitively – that much of our perception of risk is socially determined.
How we see things like nuclear power or GM crops reflects our broader world views – a web of beliefs about hierarchy, individual control, or the authority of experts – as much as objective facts in the world.
This has been very visible in risk perceptions of vaccines, and particularly with the rapid rollout of coronavirus vaccines, and also explains why just giving people the facts can have little impact.
These cultural dispositions also affect our views of positive risk, like our willingness to invest pension money on the stock market or to try out new cuisines.
Here there are important geographical differences: contrast the US approach to venture capital and start-ups, happy with risks and failures, and the European stance which tends to be more cautious, favouring the “precautionary principle” and suspicion of new technologies like artificial intelligence.
But the patterns are also political and cut across national cultures. One of the striking findings of recent work on authoritarian politics, and the motivations of followers of figures like Donald Trump or Matteo Salvini, is that they hate complexity and distrust novelty of all kinds. (PTI)

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