Can the Public Be Trusted in a Pandemic?

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Can the Public Be Trusted in a Pandemic? 1

You’d be wrong, though. (Thank you, confirmation bias.) There are always outliers, sure. But as Fischhoff explains, we should hold off on judgment and consider the decisions themselves, the context in which they were made, and the data (or lack thereof) that informed them. Spotlighting the deniers and disbelievers, although potentially useful because of the effect of public shaming, does nothing to address the bad messaging so often to blame for people’s seemingly poor decisions. During this pandemic, it’s imperative that leaders “communicate information in the best way possible so as to expand the envelope of informed choice as far as possible,” Fischhoff says. “If the communication is lousy, people can’t make good decisions. They don’t look like good decisionmakers because they haven’t been given half a chance.”

This assessment fits the toilet paper hoarders to a T(P). For at least two months, many of our country’s most powerful leaders assured us that the novel coronavirus was a nonissue, even though experts knew otherwise and were sounding the alarm. As recently as March 12, Trump was saying that Covid-19 would “go away.” On March 15, he said: “We’re going to be so good.” Meanwhile, FOX News hosts dutifully parroted his misinformation. (Or is it the other way around?)

Then it was U-turn city, with authorities like the CDC telling us—first older and more vulnerable populations, then everyone—to stock up on food, medicines, and household goods, including toilet paper. But how much? No official guidance on that. Nor did anyone, least of all Trump Administration officials, appear to shore up the supply chain in advance of this stock-up order. “All of a sudden you tell people to go get things that aren’t available,” Fischhoff says. “You’ve asked them to do the impossible and then accuse them of irrationality, hoarding, and antisocial behavior.”

Similar analysis could be applied to the gun store owner. Profiteering? Maybe. But maybe they are facing a household catastrophe we know nothing about, with a laid-off spouse, no health insurance, or some other crushing financial pressure. Most of what they had to go on was the order to close for an indefinite period of time, with little indication that the state or federal government would be there to help small businesses like this one. Was it so irrational then, so irresponsible, of that store owner to stay open an extra day or two? As Fischhoff reminded me: “We can’t know why other people do what they do unless we actually study them.”

The spring break revelers are probably the hardest to sympathize with. Why were people on the beach? “I haven’t studied them, so I don’t know,” Fischhoff says. But he can make informed guesses: “It could be that, up until a few days ago, they still didn’t understand their choices.” Keep in mind that testing has been woefully inadequate, so these vacationers likely didn’t know the prevalence of the virus. And Florida governor Ron DeSantis, refusing to close all beaches and toeing the line with the White House’s relentless downplaying, wasn’t exactly helping to spread solid information.

Even those of us who are, for better and for worse, consuming pandemic-related information by the truckload, we are just now forging a “mental model of how our behavior can have devastating effects on people we do not know or see—as part of the chain reaction creating the disease’s exponential spread,” Fischhoff says. Maybe we should go easy on the spring breakers for being just a week or so behind America’s awareness curve.

Yes, it’s important to spotlight egregious examples of people flouting social distancing guidelines or putting the public at risk in other ways. But let’s not let that distract us. Our attention should remain squarely on the villains whose dismissals and deadly ineptitude only help the virus—and on the doctors, nurses, first responders, public servants, and other heroes who are risking their lives for all of us.

Can the public be trusted? We may have our flaws and cognitive blind spots, but from the findings of scientists like Fischhoff, as well as the innumerable acts of kindness and innovation we are seeing and hearing about, there is reason for hope. Reason to have faith that neighbors and strangers alike can do the right thing. We can. We must. Stay home.


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