September 19, 2020

Why does coronavirus seem even more dangerous than it is?

“It’s a fantastic night.” “Tonight you will die.” If we hear both phrases, it is undoubtedly the latter that will capture our attention. In the same way, we will pay more attention to the alarming information about the coronavirus than to the reassuring information. In an environment of high information saturation such as ours, preferably attending to certain contents is detrimental to others and generates distorted perceptions.

Biologically we are programmed to focus on what constitutes a threat or that we perceive as such. It is a matter of mere survival. If we do not appreciate that it is a fantastic night, it is a shame, but it has no major consequences. On the other hand, if we do not detect a mortal danger, we are exposed to perish.

Misinformation has dire consequences

The media have long known and exploited this cognitive bias to capture our attention. They tend to focus on the most negative part of what happens to the point that, in the journalistic environment, the old axiom rules “No news is good news“That there is no news on a certain issue is good news because, when something bad happens, be sure that they will tell you.

In many ways, social networks have followed this pattern. Although we often show in them the friendliest and sweetened face of our lives, we tend to generate indifference, envy or even rejection. Instead, when a tragic event occurs, the activity in the networks skyrockets. The same as the level of involvement of its users.

There is one aspect, however, in which traditional social networks and media differ significantly. In the latter, the contents are generated by professionals who establish with their audiences the tacit commitment of factuality, that is, to stick to the facts (at least, in theory). However, there is a little bit of everything on social networks: very rigorous content, well-intentioned content but with notable deficiencies and inaccuracies, and content created for the sole and malicious purpose of misinformation.

In areas such as politics or health, misinformation is particularly dire because it can lead us to make decisions contrary to our own interests without being aware of it. The worst part is that, in social networks, false information circulates more widely and faster than the truth, so that its undesirable impact is difficult to tackle.

This is the communicative playing field in which all the information related to the coronavirus epidemic or, to be more precise, of Covid-19 has moved. They have abounded fake news (false news with disinformation will), but initiatives aimed at deny falsehoods, contextualize and interpret the facts, verify the data, and offer guidelines for appropriate and proportionate behavior.

Feeling of lack of control

Who has won the game? In all likelihood, the most tremendous vision. Let’s analyze why.

From the outset, because certainly this viral outbreak carries a very real risk. At the time of writing this article, the Chinese authorities had already counted in more than 2,200 those killed and 75,000 infected in that country. The potential severity of the consequences is a critical factor in perceiving a risk as very worrying.

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Secondly, because it is a virus virtually unknown to date. At first, even specialists ignored almost everything about it. An unknown risk is always perceived as more dangerous than one with which we are already familiar.

Another factor that increases the perceived danger of a risk is that it comes to us. If we voluntarily expose ourselves to it, we generate a sense of control (not always justified) that makes us feel more protected than when the risk is imposed on us without our decision to assume it. In the case of a potentially lethal and easily spread virus, obviously nobody will perceive it as a freely assumed risk.

On the other hand, for an ordinary person, understanding the ways of spreading the virus or its health impact is an arduous task. It is a complex risk. Nothing to do with risks as easy to understand as driving counter-direction on the highway or walking along a cliff in the middle of the storm. The greater the complexity (and the questionable transparency of the Chinese authorities has not helped), the greater the perception of danger.

The controversy does not help

Too the controversy causes us to perceive greater danger when assessing a risk. When someone tells us “white” and someone tells us “black”, the only thing we can be sure of is that at least one of them lies. And from distrust of fear there is only one step.

With regard to the Mobile World Congress, for example, while organizers, health authorities and institutions involved ensured that the event could be held with full guarantees, the list ofcompanies that deserted the congress as a precaution it continued to grow until it forced its cancellation.

Precisely, we may seem exaggerated measures such as canceling the Mobile or adopted by Russia to prohibit the entry into the country of any person of Chinese nationality. However, as more alleged over-actions such as these occur, we are convinced that they may be reasonable and proportionate decisions. Which amounts to maximizing the perceived danger.

Knowing, moreover, that we tend to pay more attention to alarmist information and that fake news can reach us more easily than reliable information, this whole cocktail of aggravating factors generates a perfect storm. However high the danger of the coronavirus outbreak becomes, our perception of such danger will always be greater.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. You can read the original here.


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