Miscalculating Risk: Confusing Scary With Dangerous

The coronavirus kills, everyone knows it. But this isn't the first deadly virus the world has seen, so what happened? Why did we react the way we did? One answer is that this is the first social media pandemic. News and narratives travel in real-time right into our hands.

This spreads fear in a way we have never experienced. Drastic and historically unprecedented lockdowns of the economy happened and seemed to be accepted with little question.

We think the world is confusing "scary" with "dangerous." They are not the same thing. It seems many have accepted as fact that coronavirus is one of the scariest things the human race has ever dealt with. But is it the most dangerous? Or even close?

There are four ways to categorize any given reality. It can be scary but not dangerous, scary and dangerous, dangerous but not scary, or not dangerous and not scary.

Clearly, COVID-19 ranks high on the scary scale. A Google news search on the virus brings up over 1.5 billion news results. To date, the virus has tragically killed nearly 100,000 people in the United States, and more lives will be lost. But on a scale of harmless to extremely dangerous, it would still fall into the category of slightly to mildly dangerous for most people, excluding the elderly and those with preexisting medical conditions.

In comparison, many have no idea that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, killing around 650,000 people every year, 54,000 per month, or approximately 200,000 people between February and mid-May of this year. This qualifies as extremely dangerous. But most people are not very frightened of it. A Google news search for heart disease brings up around 100 million results, under one-fifteenth the results of the COVID-19 search.

It's critical to be able to distinguish between fear and danger. Fear is an emotion, it's the risk that we perceive. As an emotion, it is often blind to the facts. For example, the chances of dying from a shark attack are minuscule, but the thought still crosses most people's minds when they play in the ocean. Danger is measurable, and in the case of sharks, the danger is low, even if fear is sometimes high.

Imagine if an insurance actuary was so scared of something that she graded it 1,000 times riskier than the data showed. This might be a career-ending mistake. This is exactly what people have done regarding COVID-19: making decisions on fear and not data.