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Why We Underestimated COVID-19


I'm Dorothy Workington on today's politics. More podcast the New Yorkers Marie Cocco via talks to the economist Daniel Conham Conman who won a Nobel prize for his work on Social Economics discusses. Why the threat posed by cove nineteen has proved so difficult for many to grasp outside of emergency rooms. It seems like many of us fail to understand this pandemic in real time to understand the seriousness of it. The appalling fatality. Now I'm not talking about this cynical disinformation that was spread by the president and his media allies. What I mean here is the spring breakers who seemed so oblivious to what was going on and continued partying on beaches. I'm talking about the way that there were crowded city parks and crowded restaurants and bars. Even as the death toll began to soar even elected officials leaders at all levels of government struggle to respond to the virus in a way that reflected just how serious the problem actually was. And is how and why people misunderstand and make mistakes is the life's work of Daniel common a scholar whose work revolutionized the field of cognitive psychology. He's a winner of the Nobel Prize and the author of thinking fast and slow a bestseller about human behavior. Maria CONACO WHO's written for the New Yorker about psychology and many other subjects spoke to Daniel Conham. Last week this is an exponential event that we see things doubling every two days every three days before days and people don't at certainly including myself don't seem to be able to think straight about exponential growth. So I was. I knew that they one hundred cases in France and I was about two flights in France. I also knew that makes exponential. I didn't even consider the five that if you know. It's the rate of infections doubles. Every three days in a month it will be increased by factor when thousands. And let me see today or infections that occur to a three weeks ago that this today or people got infected four five weeks ago all of this is a thing took a beyond intuitive human comprehension. And that's interesting that we're in a situation that we simply not equipped to understand. So I'm I'm interested in how then people can make decisions and can follow advice both from the personal love like you and I but also from the highest levels like if even someone like you is unable to grasp the nate that nature of exponential growth. And what it might mean how to leaders Us All of this information to make decisions. How do they think through it? How do they figure out? Okay well what is the best way forward well? People tend to be focused and obviously that restrict president trump as well. They tend to be focused on the number of casualties though or cases of death today. And this is something that you want to warn people again and don't look at what is happening today. You need to extrapolate into the future in terms of people obeying instructions. You don't need many numbers. I mean I think that if the president said you know looking very serious. This is a very serious problem. And we're anticipating many of these people will obey people would pay attention. It's not even a matter of people making good decisions. It's a matter of getting people to behave in a particular way in a way that appropriate to a state of fear when they're not actually experiencing and on the individual level. Is there anything that we can try to do on an individual level psychologically to be better equipped to to make these choices? I think that's a does not. This is not the individual decision make much fem- of the conversation. My point of view. This is not an individual decision. Individuals should make the smallest possible number of choices equipped to do it There should be clear guidelines and tear instructions. We ought to know whether we should open Amazon packages. Outside the door agreeing. The main. It's not a decision that individuals should consider making on the basis of what they know because they don't know enough to make has your thinking about risk. Perception has this situation actually affected at all. Well you know. I'm I'm surprised by myself in a way by my ability to grasp What is going on but it might bullets to be worried at the appropriate level. You can think of every time someone decides to go to the park. Something like that as kind of a gambling decision almost gambling with your own health gambling with the health of others. And the a lot of the work you've done has revolved around. How evaluate though the risks that the costs the benefits of different gambles in that sense? How do we make those evaluations? You know how do we think through that type of Calculus when we make decisions? One difficulty clearly. Which is that if you view every time that you go to the supermarket as a gamble You're not doing it with right. I mean that's the gambling. The same sense as wearing not wearing seatbelts is a gambler's accumulative gamble. And the risk for anyone behavior is very very slight. It's it's adopting a pattern of behavious. That on the whole for many people is going to be to be safer and here the main cue that we're getting a thing is the behavior of other people. Man I'm very struck by the change in the behavior of people in the supermarket over the last few days and that signal that other people are aware of what is happening. That is the main way. Think that brisket communicated that's really interesting so you're talking a lot about kind of the norms of behavior. We don't have a norm of wearing masks. We don't have it a norm of obeying necessarily can of those stricter things coming from the top. Do you do you think it's We might we might need a change when it comes to that well It's difficult nobody is going to change the culture. The culture is would it is but give you an example if I don't watch much television. But I see pictures of the daily conference calls of the president. If they were distancing there that would send a signal when you see a lot of people you know within within the wrong distance of each other and clearly not taking the kind of precautions that they would like everybody else to take that sends a very strong signal. Another good one. Yes Oh that kind of communication is is more important than any verbal communication and we need the appropriate emotional melody Because when the president communicates that t he really thinks that the lot of the stuff has been exaggerated the damage that this does is really huge. Did you end up taking your trip to France or did you not go hesitated to the last minute and then I decided no but But even when I made the decision I wasn't thinking straight but actually I had the tools to think much more precise about it and then use those hoops. Can you elaborate a little bit? What were the tools that you had? But that you didn't use the tools would be to try to think what it means that A pandemic is spreading. And I completely fan to see that although if I had tried to thank strategy for you know. Try to write my thoughts about it just to thinking fully. I would probably have figured it out but I wasn't doing this because the number of deaths at that time was small Then look very worrying. And the idea that this is exactly what the condemning looks like. I could have known lots of could have known. Obviously whose actions were much more important than mine. Decision of whether or not to go to Paris a lot of preparations that should have been taken would not are you. I don't I don't want us to come off wrong but are you optimistic. Are you pessimistic? Wettest your kind of what is your feeling about our ability to to get through this. You know I mean if you take the long view than of course you have to be optimistic. I'm pretty sure there'd be some cure there'd be a vaccine and you know even without a cure without scene in one thousand nine hundred eighteen you know. Millions of people died but society supply for old people like me. The profits are not good. I see very little reason for optimism at the best. I would say for the older among us. This is pretty much a life. Sentence of incarceration at home or a very long term sentence. It going to train the rest of our life so for spite the I'm definitely optimistic. There's no question. I think this is not an existential danger. Would come out of it. Society will come out of date. The economy will come out of it. It could take several years but ultimately you know life will go. Daniel Conman is professor emeritus at Princeton. And he's the author of thinking. Fast and slow and other books. Ricotta COBRAS The author of the confidence game in the forthcoming. The biggest bluff. How I learned to pay attention master myself and win.

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