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One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic (especially if it’s my fault)

July 7, 2020

This morning my beloved and I were chatting away about the latest COVID-related news. She picked up on a newspaper story about Pret A Manger closing ten percent of their outlets – a total of around forty.

Would it not be better, she suggested, if they said that ninety percent of their outlets will remain open? She makes a very good point. For a takeaway food chain to emerge from the greatest economic catastrophe in living memory with 90% of its capacity still in place would be nothing short of a miracle.

But that’s good news. And good news doesn’t sell newspapers.

I mention this because she’s cited a classic example of framing. How the way you tell stories directly influences the reader’s perception. Are you happy because X thousand jobs are not lost, or sad because Y thousand jobs have disappeared?

Thanks to Margo Catts, an American acquaintance who writes an interesting and entertaining blog, and manages to say stuff with half the words I normally use, I’ve happened on an article in the Atlantic magazine by Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, a professor of law and psychology at Pennsylvania University. In  Our Minds Aren’t Equipped for This Kind of Reopening, she talks about the difficulty of making personal decisions during the pandemic in the absence of clear-cut guidance.

But first, going back to my wife’s comments, Wilkinson-Ryan cites an experiment carried out by researchers associated with Daniel Kahneman, the author of Thinking, Fast and Slow and winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics:

“My academic subspecialty is the psychology of judgment and decision making. The foundational experiment in this discipline began with the prompt: “Imagine that the United States is preparing for an outbreak of an unusual Asian disease.” (The glibly xenophobic use of “Asian” as a shortcut to inducing fear and confusion is a subject for another article.) The experiment asked participants to choose between two public-health policies: In option A, one-third of the population survives for sure, but no one else makes it; in option B, there is a one-third chance that all survive, but a two-thirds chance that none do. For some participants, these options were described in terms of how many lives would be saved; for others, how many would die. Participants consistently chose option A, which offered certainty, if they were thinking in terms of potential gains (saving lives) but option B, which involved more risk, if they were thinking about potential losses (dying). A weighty decision was swayed dramatically by the semantic framing.”

She talks about the progressive numbing of our reaction to mass casualties from COVID. Though she doesn’t quote him, the phenomenon is best described by Josef Stalin, who said words to the effect of “one death is a tragedy, that of a million is a statistic”.

She also discusses the disparity between choices made out of self-interest, and those made on moral grounds. This chimes with my thinking. It’s the choice between “I can do this because I’m being careful and exercising common sense” and “if there’s a risk that I’m infected and might infect others, I’m not going to do this”. Ever since people started gathering again in large numbers with minimal social distancing, I’ve often thought that one of the factors that led them to disregard the guidance will be “I have a mate who caught the virus, and they were fine”. Therefore this person’s life experience told them that their risk of serious consequences was low enough for them to ignore the advice.

And finally she talks about social-distance shaming, wherein people look down on others for their blatant disregard of the established norms. She argues that we should not be so quick to blame people, especially if, like me, we live in large houses with gardens, as opposed to densely-populated areas with access to outdoor space that’s usually shared with others. Which leads to her most telling remark:

Even within academic psychology, scholars are prone to focusing on individuals who make suboptimal choices—workers who do not save, or employees who choose bad retirement investments. In the pandemic, this urge is a red herring; it is too easy to focus on people making bad choices rather than on people having bad choices. People should practice humility regarding the former and voice outrage about the latter.

Indeed. In the absence of clear guidance, which has been the hallmark of the British government’s approach since it started easing the lockdown, we should be holding it responsible before we start pointing fingers at crowds of happy drinkers in Soho, whose choice you could argue is a natural reaction to three months of unnatural confinement.

Yes, of course there have been people making irresponsible choices. And I still find it hard not to marvel at their stupidity. But we should take care not to allow those who govern us to explain away their failings by blaming  those of us who were driven to cynicism by their cack-handed response to the crisis.

Wilkinson-Ryan’s article is well worth a read. How you react to it obviously depends on your personal experience of the pandemic. I suspect that if you’re an ICU nurse you might react differently than if you’re a beer-swilling celebrant in Soho.

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