On two risks regarding taking an “abundance of caution” approach to danger

With regards to the coronavirus and what to do about it, I see many cases of  overreaction. Specifically I see people and organization saying they are taking an abundance of caution when it comes to deciding how to act.  And to me, an abundance of caution is equivalent to overreacting. With this overreaction, I see two longer term risks:

Risk one: people get desensitized to future risks because the current models of danger let them down.  An example of this, via Conundrum: Why People Do Not Listen to Evacuation Orders – Scientific American:

The fact that we failed to catch this intensification has had a counterproductive effect,” said Berrien Moore, director of the University of Oklahoma’s National Weather Center. “People tend to say, well, it’s uncertain, or it wasn’t predicted. And that leads to inaction. … Our models have let us down.”

Desensitization makes it harder to react the next time an outbreak occurs.

Risk two: it’s not a sustainable approach. We take risks all the time: when we drive to work, when we cross the street, the food we eat, the places we visit, all of these have risks associated with them. We assess the risk (sometimes poorly) and try to make rational decisions. We don’t tend to decide with an abundance of caution, because to do so is to severely limit what we can do. The tradeoffs we make when we decide that way end up harming us overall.

Desensitization and sustainability may not be big concerns if this outbreak is a rare event. If it is not rare but something we start seeing regularly, then this abundance of caution response may harm future efforts to control such contagions.

If you believe this is a rare event, then the benefit of overreaction makes sense. If you do not believe it is, then overreaction will cause problems in the future.


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