Covid, risk assessment, and cognitive load

So, here’s my latest theory on human psychology and Covid.  I won’t say I love the challenge of constantly assessing the risk of a particular situation to myself or my children and doing assessments as to what the appropriate action.  But, in general, I’m pretty good with it.  Almost surely, in part, because I’ve got to be somewhere above 95 percentile in the personality characteristic, need for cognition.  For people low in need for cognition, though, this is a real burden on how they generally approach the world.  Not to mention the fact, that NFC aside, constant risk assessments are cognitively demanding and lots of people– especially those in poverty— just don’t have the spare cognitive bandwidth.  

Anyway, so my hypothesis here is that, given these cognitive demands, there’s a fairly easy solution… default to maximum cautiousness or maximum incautiousness.  If you are like me, you definitely know a decent number of people who fall into both categories (and in my urban liberal bubble, it’s definitely more of the former).  Rather than constantly assess risk and make nuanced decisions, it’s way less demanding to go with “always take the safest course of action” or “just don’t worry about Covid.”  Yes, surely, there’s more to it than that, but I’d love to see some data about risk perceptions and need for cognition.  

And, I was definitely thinking about this a lot in terms of parenthood.  The reality is that there’s a lot more risk assessment to be done when you are also responsible for assessing the risks of another person.  My initial inclination to this headline was… get a grip, “Parenting a child under 12 in the age of delta: ‘It’s like a fire alarm every day’” but the more considered, empathetic version of Steve realizes that, for a lot of people, this is just an overwhelming amount of constant risk assessment.  Likewise, the NYT Parenting Newsletter, “Why Covid Has Broken Parents’ Sense of Risk: Every decision for not-yet-vaccinated kids feels like an unsolvable equation.”  I want to say, “well, actually it’s not… here’s what we know about the baseline risks for younger people, the role of masks in schools, the likelihood that your kid will have a serious illness, etc.,” but, let’s be honest, it’s already hard enough to rationally approach risks about your kids when the downside risk (even when extremely unlikely) is pretty much the worst thing that can happen to a person.  So, I do have some real sympathy for the parents out there who feel genuinely overwhelmed by the situation.

But, the social scientist here would love to explore the role individual variation in need for cognition, risk predispositions, etc.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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