How your risk response impacts perceptions of the pandemic’s dangers

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Different levels of comfort surrounding risk taking might play a role in how you view the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo credit: Gilbert Mercier/ Flickr

Four top health officials testified in front of the U.S. Senate Health Committee this week, warning its members that if the country reopens too quickly, COVID-19 cases might spike in the fall. But some senators, including Rand Paul, pushed back on their testimony, arguing their states are willing to take a risk to get the U.S. economy back on track. 

Why do states have different views about risk? Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, says the varying approaches could be attributed to varying degrees of comfort surrounding risk taking. 

“It's not really about intelligence or education. It really gets at something much deeper,” he says. 

Varied risk responses

Wilkes says that generally, people have three responses to risk; they are risk-averse, risk-seeking, or risk-neutral. 

Those who are risk-averse are those who are unwilling to accept risk, and often pick safer options. Wilkes says that risk seekers can be people who are “willing to accept a risk to gain … something that's desirable: more money, spending time with friends, going to a sports event.”

On the other hand, those who are risk-neutral might be unable to choose between a risky event or a safer option, Wilkes notes. They often stress-out over their decision-making, and may fall back on previous behaviors.

How situations are presented can also play a role in risk assessment in what’s known as the framing effect, Wilkes says. Information can be framed in either positive or negative terms, which can sway a decision maker’s choice.  

Factors, such as gender, professions, and cultural interests are also involved in risk and decision-making. 

Risk and COVID-19

Wilkes says that those who are risk-averse are often prevention-focused and don’t like to take chances. 

“They go to great lengths to protect themselves and their families,” he says. “These folks tend to follow the rules that are promoted by experts.” 

People who are more willing to take risks are what Wilkes refers to as promotion-based: “They tend to seek to promote or strive to achieve something that's in their self interest, so they end up better off. They are not likely to follow the rules and not usually trust authorities or experts.”  

Wilkes says that once people start returning to work, different levels of risk-taking will need to be considered. 

“They [will] need to co-mingle with each other and respect each other's various levels of risk-aversion or risk-taking it; it's not going to be easy,” he says. “It's going to force them to be well outside of their comfort zone.”  




Chery Glaser