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'We're All Calculating Risk Every Day': Psychologists Offer Tools For Trying Times

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A rock climber at the top of a pitch. This endorphin-driven, risky behavior focuses on individual responsibility, while the daily risk we face due to the pandemic is on a different scale: long-term and dependent on those around us.

While virologists work on a vaccine for COVID-19, psychologists are working on changing the way we view our individual role within the pandemic. We're familiar with treating risk as being our own choice, but infectious diseases impact people on the community level — and this is where they need to be fought, too.

Five months into living with a new virus, we're getting used to some things, like going to the store with a mask on, standing six feet apart and — for some of us — maybe still working from home.

"We've gotten to this point now where we've kind of habituated to this level of stress and living in the world as it is right now," said Dr. Kristin Kilbourn, a clinical health psychologist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. As the pandemic plays out, she says we are adapting to our situation each day, just like many drivers have habituated to speeding down the highway at 80mph.

"Many of us would say that yeah, my anxiety level is much lower than it was back in March. I may be at higher risk now for contracting COVID-19, but I don't feel as anxious about it," Kilbourn said.

Some decisions only require us to assess individual risk — like rock climbing or sky diving. But unlike rock climbing, the risky decisions we're making right now affect everyone.

Unfortunately, humans are not very good at logically assessing risk.

"We presume people we really like are less infectious than people we don't know," said Dr. Jennifer Reich, a social psychologist at the University of Colorado in Denver. It's the same kind of decision-making that can happen with sexual attraction.

Reich said, “People assume that you can’t get a sexually transmitted infection if you’re in love. That relationships and trust somehow protect you from infection. The unfortunate part is that infectious disease is not particularly relevant and controllable in this way.”

"People assume that you can't get a sexually transmitted infection if you're in love... (but) infectious disease is not particularly relevant and controllable in this way."

Because we can't easily spot who is infected and who is not, Reich said we need to consider other ways to fight the spread of COVID-19.

"We're at this juncture right now where what we really need are community-level solutions," she said. "And yet we are attached at an emotional and even moral level to the idea that everybody should take personal responsibility for health and that alone should be enough to solve illness."

Most of us, she said, view health from the perspective of individual choice and individual responsibility — and not social impact or social responsibility.

"We have this attachment to personal choice and individual rights that's really important in some contexts. But it takes away our ability to sometimes just trust that the community can solve problems, and that public officials are accountable to the public; that they work for us and they are accountable for us and to us," Reich explained.

We can consider the widespread health benefits on the community level of policies that ensure clean drinking water, limit indoor smoking — or require childhood vaccination.

Reich studies why parents choose to vaccinate their children or not. She says parents who choose not to vaccinate are not uninformed, but rather making personal choices based on being experts in their own lives.

With this mindset, Reich notes, "The challenge at a public health level is that all of our risk and benefit calculations place us in the center. Or in my research on vaccines, place people's own children in the center of that calculation. So, 'Will my child benefit from this vaccine?'"

With the coronavirus, many of us are wondering, "am I or the person I care about going to get sick?" But we're not all thinking about risk on a larger scale — the scale that infectious diseases work. Transportation, public education and economic markets also work on this scale; they are complex systems that can adapt.

"A lot of us are joking that everyone feels like an amateur epidemiologist right now."

Developing new practices takes time, and Reich said that we have a lot to learn about how science works.

"A lot of us are joking that everyone feels like an amateur epidemiologist right now because we're all evaluating, 'Should we go to the grocery store or is that risky? Should we go to a restaurant?' And we know it's better if it's outdoors than indoors, if we go in to use the bathroom. We're all calculating risk every day all day," said Reich.

If we're all going to be amateur epidemiologists, Dr. Kristin Kilbourn says one of the first things we need to learn is to become more comfortable with the idea of "not knowing."

It's a key tenet of science and one that rarely makes the headlines.

It's also a lesson she's started teaching to her children.

"They were not used to me saying, 'I don't know. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what the future looks like. I don't know when school's going to reopen.' And that was really hard for them initially," said Kilbourn.

This doesn't mean that we don't know anything, it just means that we're working on what we don't know. Kilbourn says we make the best decisions we can with the knowledge available and keep asking questions about the rest.

Seré Williams is a 2020 AAAS Mass Media Fellow sponsored by the Heising-Simons Foundation.