BANGKOK, THAILAND – MARCH 11: Thai restaurant workers try to attract customers at the empty Rot Fai … [+]
With Coronavirus in the news and on the rise, it’s almost impossible not to get sucked into the terror bubble. But, as with anything in life, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Even under worst-case assumptions, it’s unlikely that you will become seriously ill from the flu-like virus.
Of course, not panicking is easier said than done. But it’s not impossible. While there are many ways to cope with panic, one seems especially appropriate given the circumstances. And that has to do with switching your mindset from a ‘loss frame’ to a ‘gain frame.’
To understand exactly what I mean, consider this eerily-relevant scenario from a famous psychology study, published in 1981:
Imagine that the U.S. is preparing for the outbreak of an unusual Asian disease, which is expected to kill 600 people. Two alternative programs to combat the disease have been proposed. Assume that the exact scientific estimate of the consequences of the programs are as follows:
- If Program A is adopted, 200 people will be saved.
- If Program B is adopted, there is a 1/3 probability that 600 people will be saved, and a 2/3 probability that no people will be saved.
What would you choose? If you chose Program A, you’d be in the majority. 72% of people chose this option in the original study.
But here’s where it gets interesting. The researchers conducted the experiment again, but with minor alterations to the wording of the programs. In this case, the options were presented as follows:
- If Program A is adopted 400 people will die.
- If Program B is adopted there is a 1/3 probability that nobody will die, and 2/3 probability that 600 people will die.
Notice that the outcomes are identical to the first scenario, but the wording has shifted from from a “lives saved” frame to a “lives lost” frame. Does this matter? Yes, overwhelmingly. Under these circumstances, a majority of people (78%, to be exact) select Program B. In other words, Program A is a much more attractive option when it is framed as “people will be saved” versus “people will die.” This taps into people’s conservative nature: it’s better to avoid losses than risk gains, especially when losses haven’t yet been realized.
Reframing the Coronavirus
As bad as the numbers are on Coronavirus illnesses and deaths at present, they are made to seem even worse by a focus on losses — for the same reasons identified by the psychologists who first discovered framing effects. We tend to focus, irrationally, on losses and we are hyper-sensitive to negative signals in our environment. It’s a survival mechanism, but it can also be a blind spot.
So, the next time you hear a loss-framed headline on the news, do your best to flip it to a gain frame. For instance, it was recently reported that there are over 1000 cases of Coronavirus in the United States. That same headline could just as well have been written “329,999,000 out of 330,000,000 Americans do not have Coronavirus” or “99.9997% of Americans are still Coronavirus-free.” Or, regarding Coronavirus fatalities in China, instead of focusing on the number of deaths (3,158 at present), focusing on the recovery rate (>95%) might help you keep things in perspective.
Again, this is not to downplay the severity of the situation. But it might help you keep a level head through this time of unprecedented uncertainty.