Young pessimists, old optimists, and the strange ways we think about risk

6th August, 2020

Have we blown the risk of catching Covid-19 out of all proportion? Or are we not nearly frightened enough? The fashionable view is that people have become reckless. Photographs of crowded bars and beaches provide some evidence for that. So too, more worryingly, does the apparently endless swell of the first wave of infections in the US, where young people are making up a larger proportion of new infections. In hotspots such as Houston, the young make up a growing proportion of the people being admitted to hospital, too.

Peer more closely, though, and the picture is mixed. Across the world, people are fearful of schools fully reopening, despite the fact that children and parents alike badly need them. There is very little risk to children and not much evidence that schools are major vectors for infecting teachers or parents.

Yet we worry. Ola Rosling of Gapminder, an educational foundation, tells me that his international polling finds almost 85 per cent of people think it is unsafe to reopen schools. Nearly half of them think it is unsafe for the children themselves, which thankfully is untrue.

Our sense of peril will continue to evolve as we hear more stories from families who have suffered. Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist and Nobel laureate, has argued that vivid stories tend to swamp probability when we evaluate risk. A two per cent chance of dying from Covid is clearly twice as bad as a one per cent chance.

But if instead of the thin description “dying from Covid”, we tell a story about infection, family concern, fever, apparent recovery, a sharp turn for the worse, being rushed to hospital, sedated and then dying, separated from family — well, by this point nobody cares about the percentages. The risk becomes terribly real, for a while at least.

Another perspective comes from an NBER working paper with the self-explanatory title: “Older People are Less Pessimistic about the Health Risks of Covid-19”.

This study screened out people who could not answer some reasonably demanding questions about statistics, and then asked them to estimate the quantitative risks of coronavirus to themselves and to others. For example: consider 1,000 people “very similar to you” who contract Covid-19. How many will die?

A plausible estimate of the true answer is that 5-10 people will die, but also that the details depend dramatically on the age of the respondent. Objectively, the risk for people in their seventies who contract the virus is about 10 to 20 times that of the risk for infected people in their forties. The risk for people in their twenties or early thirties is so low as to be hard to estimate.

Respondents to the survey saw things rather differently. Those aged 18-34 thought 20 people “like them” would die out of every 1,000 infected. That guess is far too high. In contrast, those over 70 thought that 10 people like them would die out of every 1,000 infected. That guess is too low, although probably closer to the truth than the youthful pessimists.

Andrei Shleifer, one of the authors of the NBER paper, is confident that the finding is real, partly because other surveys have reached similar conclusions. But how to square it with pictures of young people on beaches is not clear.

Prof Shleifer speculates that the explanation is that young people do not usually think about dying at all, while elderly people have spent a little too much time at funerals to ignore the fact that we are all mortal. Covid-19 has forced everyone to think about death, but for the over-seventies that thought is not novel.

Perhaps Prof Shleifer is right. If so it underlines how strangely our minds process risks. Covid has not appreciably increased the already tiny risk of dying for those under the age of twenty five. For those over 45, already facing a variety of ways to drop dead, Covid has been a large additional risk factor. During April and May, the risk of death increased by about 50 per cent for everyone over 45 in the UK, according to calculations by Professor David Spiegelhalter.

None of this explains the insouciance in evidence among young partygoers. But that may not be so difficult to understand either. Dr Claudia Schneider, a risk-perception expert at Cambridge university, puts it simply: maybe the kind of person who likes to go out and party in a pandemic is a very different kind of character from the person answering online surveys about Covid risks.

This simple explanation points to a messy truth: we are now at the stage of the pandemic when there is a vast disparity of different attitudes and actions. Some of us are nervous and cautious; some are unafraid and reckless. I am grateful for the over-cautious: the last thing we need is a resurgence of the virus in Europe.

But our disparate perceptions of risk are creating a social minefield. To answer my original question: some of us are blowing the risk out of all proportion, some of us are not frightened enough. But all of us are going to have find a way to forge ahead together.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 10 July 2020.

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