How fear distorts our thinking about the coronavirus

The solution isn't to try to think more carefully. It's to trust the experts.

When it comes to making decisions that involve risks, we humans can be irrational in quite systematic ways - a fact that psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman famously demonstrated with the help of a hypothetical situation, eerily apropos of today's coronavirus epidemic, that has come to be known as the Asian disease problem.

Professors Tversky and Kahneman 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. To combat the disease, people could choose between two options: a treatment that would ensure 200 people would be saved or one that had a 33 per cent chance of saving all 600 but a 67 per cent chance of saving none. Here, a clear favourite emerged: Seventy-two per cent chose the former.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2020, with the headline 'How fear distorts our thinking about the coronavirus'. Print Edition | Subscribe