The impact of fear on decision-making is to overestimate both risk and the effectiveness of interventions intended to keep us from danger.

Science doesn’t tell us everything and we are constantly learning as science is changing and evolving. One of the ways in which science works is: 

  • Create a hypothesis.
  • Provide supporting evidence.
  • See how the hypothesis stands up to scrutiny.

“If the observations agree with the predictions, that doesn’t prove the theory but the theory survives to make further predictions, which are again tested against observation. If the observations don’t agree with the predictions, one abandons the theory”, Stephen Hawking, 1993.

That concept is often expressed as Modus Tollens; you don’t need to keep finding times when your theory is correct, you only need to show once where it is wrong and that is sufficient to say that your hypothesis is incorrect or in need of refinement. 

You can also prove something wrong or incorrect. You falsify it.

Our hypothesis: Might fear, and it may even be subliminal fear, perhaps cloud people’s judgement or decision making with respect to this pandemic?

As evidence, please read the tweet from the brilliant Prof Reicher. (50k citations) https://twitter.com/ReicherStephen/status/1381973703370637312

Pay close attention to the language used by both Prof Reicher and the language the newspaper article. The Professor’s words are ‘COVID surges. That’s why infection is spiking globally, lockdowns reimposed’. The newspaper refers to ‘Covid pandemic still growing exponentially’.

So how universal or true are those statements? Is the virus surging everywhere? Is that falsifiable? Look at the graph below from Ireland & UK and it is demonstrably not true in the case of Ireland and the UK. Cases are not surging. And they are not growing exponentially. Hence the statement about ‘global surges’, is not applicable to us here, despite the inference and claim in the language. 

So two very logical sounding assertions do not apply in all cases. Therefore, the assertion is less secure than at first it seems.

If a Professor of Behavioural Psychology can pronounce on assertions that are falsifiable in many cases, what chance is there for the (wo)man-in-the-street and politicians glued to rolling 24-hour doom-and-gloom news coverage to draw rational, testable evidence-informed conclusions? 

Let us reiterate absolutely – this is not a personal criticism of Prof Reicher in any way. It is merely an example of an instance that might support our hypothesis.

Can the psychological community speak to research about the experience of repeated messaging on subjects’ beliefs and values? Could that term be propaganda in some texts?

Is the article therefore universally true? No. Might it even be misleading? Perhaps that is for the fact checkers to decide?

Does the language choice frame the interpretation of the global situation in a certain way? Yes. 

Let’s examine some whys. Why might someone want you to think, or see, the issue in this way? Perhaps they genuinely believe that the risk is very serious. Let’s examine the basis for this ‘feeling’ or belief or fear in a little detail.

Let us state unequivocally that Covid-19 is real. And yes, absolutely Covid-19 is a dangerous disease for a cohort of people. 

How dangerous? For all that we think we know, there are many uncertainties about the exact scale of that danger. For instance, we don’t know how many people have truly been exposed or infected by the disease. 

The scientific literature has many estimates about Covid-19 and other similar respiratory viruses. If you take the time to read around, you will find that many estimates seem to coalesce around there being somewhere between 5 and 10 cases in the community for every 1 case detected. These undetected cases are people who don’t feel sick (asymptomatic/pauci-symptomatic) or don’t require medical attention – as is often the case with many circulating viruses. The CDC in February estimated that they only detected about 1 in 5 infections.

So, if we do some simple maths for Ireland; The HSPC say that there has been approximately 250,000 cases detected in Ireland. Multiply that number by 5 or 10. 

That means that there may be somewhere between 1.24 million and 2.5 million true infections in Ireland. 

Compare that number now with cases and fatalities. That changes significantly the size and scale of the risk – and better scholars than us have made much more rigorous analysis of the size and scale of those risks. 

It also asks questions about the utility of restrictions to mitigate spread when disease is so prevalent.

Is it possible that we are still anchored in ‘the fear’ of people falling down in the streets like those early videos from Wuhan? Has anyone seen that particular ‘symptom’ of the disease anywhere else in the world since then? https://twitter.com/Swift__Girl/status/1380604578501120006

We digress. Is it possible that we have subconsciously created an inaccurate picture of the disease severity in our minds – and that the resultant fear could be influencing our subliminal risk assessment? 

…the major effect of fear on decision-making is to overestimate both risk and the effectiveness of interventions intended to keep us from danger…

What evidence is there to support this in Ireland? 

NPHETS entire ‘abundance of caution’ approach despite falling hospitalisation, bed occupancy, ICU, mortality, test positivity rate, and the uncanny similarity of all the graphs to typical winter respiratory season patterns.

See more evidence in this twitter thread. There may be others and please feel free to add them in the replies and comments to this article. https://twitter.com/BBN_Ireland/status/1383688365388701703

Models and their fearful projections got us into this state. Can a more optimistic model show us the way out? There could be a way to use the way the disease practically ignores the healthy and those under 60. Perhaps they hold the key to protecting our vulnerable. You can read more how that might be possible at  https://twitter.com/BBN_Ireland/status/1383085819410415621

Coming back to the original question, is fear clouding our judgement? 

Please take some time to reflect. Look at the statements of those in positions of power? Do they appear to be overestimating risks? Are they over-confident, certain that their measures are the right ones and that they will protect us? If this hypothesis is unsound, please tear it down with science. That is how science is supposed to work, after all.  

We welcome the conversation, as we try to balance all sides of the public health and societal good arguments.