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Are We Fearing the Right Things?

I am fascinated by the human tendency to fear the wrong things. We routinely display probability neglect by fretting about vividly publicized remote possibilities while ignoring higher probabilities. Dramatic catastrophes make us gasp, while probabilities we barely grasp.


Thus, we may fear airline flights more than driving—though over the last decade driving has been, per mile traveled, 501 times more likely to kill us. We may fear nuclear power more than coal mining and burning. And how many parents agonize about statistically rare terrorist acts, school shootings, and child abductions . . . while not bothering to strap their child into a car seat?


Psychology geeks will recognize the availability heuristic at work here, skewing our intuitive risk assessments. That reality triggers my wondering—as a genuine question from one who is respecting the sheltering mandate—Are our COVID-19 fears proportional to the COVID-19 threat?


Consider: About 2.8 million Americans die each year. Imagine that in 2020, an additional 200,000 of us die of COVID-19. That number would be an enormous tragedy, reflecting a mountain of suffering and pain.


Without minimizing those losses, also consider this: In this scenario, the average person this year would be 14 times more likely to die of something other than the lethal virus. So, should we be 14 times more afraid of all those other causes of death—such as  heart disease (647,000 deaths), cancer (599,000), and accidents (170,000)?


Of course, the actual risks facing any individual vary, depending on their occupational exposure, their underlying health, and also their age. As we all know, older people are much more threatened by the coronavirus, while “Young, healthy Americans have a fatality rate similar to that of the seasonal flu,” reports Johns Hopkins public health professor Marty Makary.


The age gap was seemingly not fully appreciated by letter writers who told the New York Times how much they feared for the lives of students being sent to college this fall. The CDC reports that, between February 1, and May 16, 2020, COVID-19 claimed the lives of 88 Americans under age 25. Although each life lost is a tragedy, that’s a small fraction of the ~1300 under-age-25 Americans who die in vehicle crashes during an average 3+ month interval. Moreover, as Dana Rose Garfin and colleagues note, vivid media depictions of public health crises or terrorism can trigger anxiety and stress among those “at relatively low risk” and “with downstream consequences” on their health-protective behaviors and health.


This is not to minimize the COVID threat. In April, COVID-19  was the number 1 cause of death in the United States. In just the first 18 days of that month, the country experienced 51,218 “excess deaths” (220,002 versus an expected 174,784).[1] And scientists are still discovering the full range of possible lingering effects of COVID-19 infection.


Furthermore, when low-risk younger adults shun parties and wear masks they not only protect themselves, they also protect their communities. Their caution expresses intergenerational altruism. Thankfully, we have expert guidance that helps them and us discern situations that are higher risk (face-to-face, sustained indoor meetings and meals) and very low risk (fleeting outdoor passersby).


I therefore will not soon be a customer at indoor restaurants. Even so, I sheepishly wonder: Have I taken more risk when fearlessly biking without a helmet than when entering a COVID-19-era grocery store or walking by people in the outdoor air?


In explaining Notre Dame University’s decision to reopen in August, its president, the Rev. John Jenkins, cites “Aristotle, who defined courage not as simple fearlessness, but as the mean between a rashness that is heedless of danger and a timidity that is paralyzed by it. To possess the virtue of courage is to be able to choose the proper mean between these extremes — to know what risks are worth taking, and why.”


So, what shall we conclude? On balance, are our fears proportional to the various risks we face? On reflection, I expect that my fears are imperfectly correlated with actual lethal threats. I am not immune to the cognitive distortions about which I write—to excessively fearing what’s in the news and to what psychologists call “unrealistic optimism” about what isn’t. In that, I suspect I am not alone.


Pondering these things has not altered my sheltering in place. But it has prompted a different change. On my daily bike outings, I am now donning a helmet.


(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyda
y life, visit



[1] Despite fewer work and vehicle accident deaths during the shutdown, the CDC excess death estimate considerably exceeds the CDC’s 34,254 COVID-19 actual death count during those three weeks. This suggests that, contrary to conspiracy theories of hospitals inflating COVID death counts, the official COVID death counts are underestimates.

Source: macmillan psych community