We all have different tolerances for risk, and the pandemic has thrust these differences to center stage. Because the choices we make based on our personal risk profiles inevitably affect others, shaming and judgement have been prevalent.
I witnessed this firsthand at my weekly bridge game. My bridge partner, in her early forties and fully vaccinated, insisted that we play outside, in cold, damp weather. My opponent, in his sixties and also vaccinated, asked why we should suffer. She explained that the evidence was not yet established that indoor activities with vaccinated people were safe. The discussion got heated, and my friend later asked me if she was being unreasonable. I shrugged and said that we all have to do what makes us comfortable, but the evidence is encouraging that vaccinated people not only can’t transmit the virus but also face essentially no risk of severe illness. She nodded—and said that she’d play bridge inside when there was definitive evidence that it was completely safe. Such evidence may never come. Science is rarely that definitive.
The episode made me realize how the pandemic has undermined our sense of risk. No doubt the government made many mistakes during the pandemic. Some blame all 500,000 American deaths on Donald Trump, but countries fared differently in part due to luck, geography, and population.
In one area, however, we clearly have failed: how media and public-health authorities choose to communicate risk. At every turn, we have asked people to make sense of misleading and incomplete information and instructed them, variously, either to avoid all risks or to dismiss them altogether. Despite the good news of not one, but several, miraculous vaccines coming online, we are communicating the nature of risk so poorly that it is threatening the credibility of our public-health institutions, which will leave us more vulnerable to future health crises.
It has become conventional wisdom that individuals are terrible at managing risk. Countless books and studies prove that human beings are burdened by behavioral biases that cause them to overestimate some risks, underestimate others, and make decisions not in their best interests or that are harmful to others. Awareness of these biases has given rise to policies that aim to “nudge” us to make better decisions. (The British government even created a nudge unit.)
These nudging policies can sometimes induce better behavior. For example, automatically enrolling people in workplace pension accounts increases savings rates because it removes the hassle of signing up and picking investments yourself. But nudges also have limitations and can even backfire. Some evidence suggests, for instance, that workplace pension auto-enrollment can also lead to lower savings rates, either because the default rate is too low or because it is so high that people opt out altogether.
Perhaps most damaging, however, has been the idea arising in the last few years that people simply can’t be trusted to make sensible risk assessments—that they must be guided or even manipulated into making smarter choices. The idea that we need to be “tricked” into good behavior was pervasive throughout the pandemic. First, we were told masks weren’t effective, in what turned out to be an attempt to protect supplies for health-care workers. Last spring, we were told that coming into contact with others in just about any environment was unsafe, despite data showing the risk of outdoor transmission was very low. Over the holidays, rather than telling people that they should reduce their risks at holiday gatherings by taking steps like getting a test beforehand, public-health officials said that we should all just stay home, because tests can’t guarantee safety. Even today, the FDA refuses to approve cheap, at-home rapid tests without a prescription because the government doesn’t trust individuals to assess risks based on good, albeit imperfect, information.
The worst, most consequential failure in risk communication concerns the current vaccine rollout. The media constantly instruct us that, even weeks after receiving the second shot, it’s still not safe to socialize without masks. President Biden and Anthony Fauci have warned that we may not be able to resume “normal” life for another year. Fauci recently counseled against vaccinated people eating in indoor restaurants or playing mahjong together. Public-health officials today gave the green light for vaccinated people to gather together—but only after weeks of confusing and contradictory guidance.
We can’t go on like this forever, much less for another year. At a certain point, we have to learn to live with low-grade Covid risk. Indeed, we should have been doing so the whole time. Research from psychologists such as Gerd Gigerenzer suggests that people are good at weighing risks against rewards; we tend to make mistakes only when the data are presented in a confusing way or when it seems untrustworthy. Unfortunately, the media and public-health authorities have repeatedly failed on both counts.
The failures in risk communication about the vaccines may have serious consequences for public health. To many people, getting injected with a new vaccine feels like a risk. We should be communicating to people that the risk is worth it. Evidence shows that the various vaccines on offer nearly eliminate the risk of severe disease, hospitalization, death, and even transmission, yet public-health authorities have effectively been downplaying these benefits by telling people that they shouldn’t change their behavior even after getting vaccinated. If we aren’t upfront about both costs and benefits, how can we expect people to make sensible risk choices?
So far, demand for the vaccine is outpacing supply. But there’s a growing concern that, as supply catches up, fewer people will take it because of all the mixed messaging from public-health authorities.
The authorities should know better. The CDC’s own website addresses the importance of communicating risks and uncertainties in a clear and honest way. We need to move beyond the idea that we are all flawed risk-takers who need constant nudging and manipulation by our betters.