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How Our Brains Numb Us to COVID-19's Risks

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Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Back in March, going just about anywhere felt like entering a combat zone. As COVID-19 case counts rose across the country, I quaked at the prospect of going to the grocery store. I donned my mask and tried not to inhale as I threaded through the aisles, dousing myself with sanitizer as soon as I got out.

But as the pandemic stretched into summer, my vigilance began to flag. Trips to the grocery store started to seem routine again rather than cause for panic. In June, I signed my oldest son up for summer camp — albeit one with campers confined to small groups. And I hope to send both my kids back to the classroom when school officially reopens.

I often suspect, though, that I’m getting too blasé about the ongoing threat from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. And I know I’m not alone. Thousands of us are less afraid than we were at the pandemic’s outset, even though in many parts of the country mounting case counts have increased the danger of getting the virus. We’re swarming the beaches and boardwalks, often without masks. We’re crowding into restaurants we haven’t visited for months. And some of us are gathering in large groups for raucous parties — even in COVID-19 hot spots such as Miami, Houston, and northern Georgia.

Given the public health costs of this kind of mental adaptation, psychologists and risk analysts say, there’s a strong case for pushing back against our own flawed risk assessments — and for putting up policy guardrails that protect us from our increasing numbness to the virus’s danger.

Social scientists have long known that we perceive risks that are acute, such as an impending tsunami, differently than chronic, ever-present threats like car accidents. Part of what’s happening is that COVID-19 — which we initially saw as a terrifying acute threat — is morphing into more of a chronic one in our minds. That shift likely dulls our perception of the danger, risk perception expert Dale Griffin said.

“Once, people were glued to the news broadcasts about the virus,” said Griffin, a professor of marketing and behavioral science at the University of British Columbia in Canada. Now, when they think about COVID-19, “most people have a reduced emotional reaction. They see it as less salient.”

This habituation stems from a principle well-known in psychological therapy: The more we’re exposed to a given threat, the less intimidating it seems. Psychologists draw on this principle to treat people’s extreme phobias in an approach called exposure therapy. If patients have a paralyzing fear of spiders, a therapist might encourage them to stay in the same room with a spider or even touch it.

As the pandemic drags on, people are unknowingly performing a kind of exposure therapy on themselves, said University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, author of “The Perception of Risk” — and the results can be deadly.

Fear of COVID-19 initially kept many people hunkering down inside their homes and glued to their screens to order food and needed supplies. Then, with trepidation, they headed out to buy groceries. The next time they left home, they felt bolder. Soon, like me, they were lining up at reopened stores for nonessential shopping trips, setting up hair appointments, and seeing friends from a distance.

“You have an experience and the experience is benign. It feels okay and comfortable. It’s familiar. Then you do it again,” Slovic said. “If you don’t see anything immediately bad happening, your concerns get deconditioned.” And according to the University of Washington environmental policy professor Ann Bostrom, whose research focuses on risk perception, we have a human tendency to grow numb to mounting numbers of deaths and diagnoses.

The end result of all this desensitizing is a kind of overriding heedlessness decoupled from evidence — the anti-mask movements, the beach gatherings, the overflowing dance parties. And experts say this backsliding is predictable — in the face of what feels a threat.

What’s more, the way we assess cost and reward in this pandemic discourages us from taking actions that keep the virus in check, Slovic said. One of the best ways to reinforce a certain behavior is to make sure that behavior is rewarded and that deviations from it are punished (or ignored). But when it comes to lifesaving behaviors such as mask-wearing or staying home from parties, this reward-punishment calculus gets turned on its head.

With parties, when you do the right thing and stay home, “you feel an immediate cost: You’re not able to be with your friends,” Slovic said. He added that while there is an upside to this decision — helping to stop the spread of the virus — it feels distant. “The benefit is invisible, but the costs are very tangible.”

By contrast, Slovic said, when you flout guidelines about wearing masks or avoiding gatherings, you get an immediate reward: You rejoice at not having to breathe through fabric, or you enjoy celebrating a close friend’s birthday in person.

Our tendency to view risk through the prism of emotion also hurts us during a pandemic. To gauge whether to take a particular risk, we usually look to how we feel about it: Most of us don’t feel safe doing a cartwheel on the edge of the Grand Canyon, so we sensibly hang back.

On the other hand, a lot of us now feel safe crowding into bars or flying on a full airplane, even though those feelings bear little relation to facts about viral transmission. Still, emotion-based risk assessment is highly dynamic, Bostrom said: If cases spike or hospitals get crowded in a given city, people might grow fearful again and start behaving in more risk-averse ways.

Because risk perception fails as we learn to live with COVID-19, Griffin and other researchers are calling for the renewal of tough government mandates to curb virus spread. They see measures such as strict social distancing, enforced masking outside the home, and stay-at-home orders as perhaps the only things that can protect us from our own faulty judgment.

But these kinds of measures aren’t enough on their own, Griffin said. It’s also important for authorities to supply in-your-face reminders of those mandates, especially visual cues, so people won’t draw their own erroneous conclusions about what’s safe.

“A few parks have drawn circles [on their lawns]: ‘Don’t go out of the circle,’ ” Griffin said. “We need to take those kinds of metaphors and put them throughout the entire day.”

Whether governments decide to reinstitute stricter rules, each of us can learn to argue against our own snap judgments about COVID-19’s dangers, Slovic said. “The first step is awareness that sometimes you can’t trust your feelings.”

For people considering how to assess COVID-19 risks, Slovic advised pivoting from emotionally driven gut reactions to what psychologist Daniel Kahneman — winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics for his integration of psychological research into economic science — calls “slow thinking.” That means making decisions based on careful analysis of the evidence. “You need to either do the slow thinking yourself,” Slovic said, “or trust experts who do the slow thinking and understand the situation.

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Schedule2 Oct 2023