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Coronavirus (COVID-19): Base rate fallacy, everyday heuristics, panic, and the media’s influence

The digital world is spreading the panic disease at a faster pace than the coronavirus outbreak. It is very easy to panic when confronted with sensationalist information. This is why analysing the situation closely is the best thing anyone can do for their mental health.

Overview:

So far, there have been over 244,000 reported cases globally, and out of those over 10,000 have resulted in death, and over 87,000 have resulted in recovery. This suggests that the great majority of infected people recover. Moreover, there are over 147,000 active cases, out of which more than 139,000 are reported as in mild condition, whereas only 7,516 are reported as in critical condition. This indicates that most people diagnosed with the disease are at low risk of death in comparison with the minority which is at high risk of death. It is true that coronavirus death rates have been burgeoning. Nevertheless, there are many reasons why people die, and it is important to keep these rates in mind when making inferences.

Worldmeter (2020).

Daily global deaths:

  • Over 1,000 have died today due to COVID-19
  • Over 1,000 have died today due to seasonal flu.
  • Over 2,500 people have died today by suicide.
  • Over 2,500 people have died today due to malaria.
  • Over 6,000 people have died today due to alcohol.
  • Over 4,000 people have died today due to HIV/AIDS.
  • Over 13,000 people have died today due to smoking.
  • Over 21,000 people have died today due to cancer.

Worldmeter (2020).

UK specific figures

“As of 9am on 19 March 2020, 64,621 people have been tested in the UK, of which 61,352 were confirmed negative and 3,269 were confirmed positive. As of 1pm 144 patients in the UK who tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) have died”.

GOV.UK (2020b)

Understanding global emergencies

What is the level of risk with the coronavirus?

Based on the research presented above which was collected today, so far the risk that the coronavirus poses is very similar to the risk that the seasonal flu poses. The problem is that COVID-19 has no vaccination yet, and it is also extremely contagious in comparison to less contagious diseases such as AIDS/HIV. Another risk is that the virus is spreading very fast.

Should I panic?

No. Panic is not good for anyone. Panic happens because the media industry tends to engage in what can be described as a base rate fallacy (Hardman, 2015) which is the idea that people tend attribute a higher level of risk to a situation when they are not aware of the actual base rates of such phenomena. As demonstrated with the above mentioned figures, COVID-19 has still not reached a point where it surpasses other illnesses which are also global emergencies, such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, and cancer. And whilst it is true that the coronavirus’ rates have been burgeoning and it is spreading super fast, there is hope that it can be tackled (i.e. most people recover).

What other cognitive biases should I be aware of when it comes to illness?

Apart from the base rate fallacy, there is another everyday error people make when making sense of information, and this phenomenon is called availability heuristic (Hardman, 2015); which happens when people consciously allocate their attention to a specific situation whilst at the same time ignoring equally important situations, and then believing that whatever they paid attention to has a higher frequency than what they never consciously paid attention to. In the case of COVID-19, as demonstrated above, there are currently other diseases with death tolls way higher than this virus. Nevertheless, due to this cognitive bias people tend to think that COVID-19 has a higher frequency of deaths than other illnesses, but this happens because the media industry is selective about the information they present to the public, and the information they omit. The daily death tolls mentioned above are evidence about base rate fallacy and availability heuristics present in everyday interpretation of data.

What can I do to protect myself?

  • Follow the GOV.UK (2020a) advice.
  • Take a deep breath, we are all doing the best we can to help.
  • If you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, contact your doctor or call 111 (NHS, 2020).
  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water.
  • Critically judge death rates without panicking.
  • Self-isolate, and remain informed about developments of the outbreak.
  • Be kind to emergency staff, as their job has no lockdown.
  • If you are a journalist, be mindful about how you present your information. Everything functions better when people remain calm.

References

GOV.UK (2020) ‘Coronavirus (COVID 19): UK government response’ [Online]. Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/coronavirus-covid-19-uk-government-response (Accessed 19 March 2020).

GOV.UK (2020b) ‘Number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases and risk in the UK’ [Online]. Available at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public (Accessed 19 March 2020).

Hardman, D. (2015) ‘Everyday errors in making sense of the world’, in Barker, M. J. and Turner, J. (eds), Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes, The Open University, pp. 51-85.

National Health Service (2020) ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19)’ [Online]. Available at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/ (Accessed 19 March 2020)

World Health Organization (2020) ‘COVID-19 situation’ [Online]. Available at https://experience.arcgis.com/experience/685d0ace521648f8a5beeeee1b9125cd (Accessed 19 March 2020).

Worldmeter (2020a) ‘COVID-19 Coronavirus Outbreak’ [Online]. Available at https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ (Accessed 19 March 2020).

Worldmeter (2020a) ‘Worldwide’ [Online]. Available at https://www.worldometers.info (Accessed 19 March 2020).