This Bias Explains Why People Don't Take COVID-19 Seriously

We have a tendency to engage in unrealistic optimism about our personal risk.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Rawpixel
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Rawpixel

As the coronavirus has continued to spread, something puzzling has happened. Despite the exponential increase in rates of infection, a fatality rate that is 10 times that of the flu, and foreboding predictions about a lack of hospital beds for those in critical condition, many people do not seem to be taking the illness seriously.

A recent poll found that 56 percent of Americans see coronavirus as a real threat — down 10 percent since last month. Well-known radio show hosts have lambasted the media for spreading "fake news" about the coronavirus, and spring breakers are still partying.  

Why aren't people taking this threat seriously? 

Termed an "optimistic bias" or "unrealistic optimism," research finds that people systematically underestimate their risk of succumbing to threats. When researchers asked a representative sample of New Jersey residents their risk for various hazards, people underestimated their risk for 25 of the 32 hazards, including for coronavirus adjacent-ailments like the flu and pneumonia. The average student said they were far less likely than their classmates to get cancer, experience divorce, or get a heart attack. As far as math goes, everyone actually having below-average risk is statistically impossible. 

The dark side of unrealistic optimism is that it leads people to take fewer safety precautions. People who were unrealistically optimistic about heart attacks knew less about the disease and learned less about heart attacks after being exposed to information about it. But this collective delusion does seem to make us feel good, as unrealistic optimism is related to feelings of personal satisfaction. 

There are a few factors that increase our likelihood of engaging in unrealistic optimism: when we have little personal experience with the risk when the risk is low in probability, and when the risk is seen as controllable by personal action. Coronavirus meets two of these three criteria for most people. That also means we'll be more likely to take the risk seriously when it sprouts up in our personal lives, at which point, it'll likely be too late. 

At the time of this writing, there are 46,450 cases of coronavirus in the United States. A little over a week ago, on March 17th, 7,800 cases were confirmed. Still, data from a week ago finds that fewer than half of U.S. adults are changing their behaviors to slow the spread of the virus.

Engaging in unrealistic optimism may make us feel good but at the grave cost of human life. We need to catch ourselves when we're tempted to deny the severity of this virus and take the necessary precautions.