When Caution Becomes Paranoia

The recent Coronavirus scare is saturating the media lately, and with good reason. But, what you may not know is the invisible force that may be turning caution into paranoia.

Back in 1981, Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted a study that is eerily similar to the Coronavirus we're watching unfold today.

They asked people to imagine that the United States was preparing for an outbreak of an unusual Asian disease that was expected to kill 600 citizens. People could choose between two options: a treatment that would ensure 200 people would be saved or one that had a 33 percent chance of saving all 600 but a 67 percent chance of saving none. Seventy-two percent chose the former.

But simply framing the question differently produced very different results.  When they presented the first option as only 400 people would die and the second option as a 33% chance that no one would die and a 67 percent chance that all 600 would die, 78% favored the second option. The  choices are mathematically identical, so what's going on? 

Because of an unconscious bias called loss aversion, we tend to accept more risks to try to avoid a loss than get a gain. The loss aversion is a reflection of a general bias in human psychology (also called status quo bias) that make people resistant to change. So when we think about change we focus more on what we might lose rather than on what we might get.

The concern around the Coronavirus is a real threat. However, how many precautions are you taking to protect yourself from the flu? In the U.S. alone, the flu has already caused an estimated 19 million illnesses, and killed up to 25,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Compared to the 15 confirmed cases of the Coronavirus, it seems like we should be bathing in hand sanitizer. But, most people aren't even thinking about the flu. 

When does cautionary behavior turn into irrational paranoia? When loss aversion and fear hijack logic.  And it happens more than we'd like to think!

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