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Assessing risk

03 April 2020 - By Paul Sills

Our responses to fear and the unknown are in the spotlight as the coronavirus, COVID-19, spreads around the world and dominates the news. As well as media images of people covered head to toe in plastic bags for protection, and stories of those affected by travel bans and quarantine arrangements, we see toilet paper, cleaning products and tinned food becoming increasingly scarce in our own supermarkets. Why have we responded to the coronavirus in this way when the common flu doesn’t really turn heads?

Our unconscious biases, or how we think about risks and the cognitive triggers that impact our responses, play a significant role. The cognitive risk management tools we use in situations of widespread panic such as the coronavirus are similar to those used in conflict– the same unconscious triggers affect how we respond to others, what we base our decisions on, and therefore how we act.

Prior to psychological research in the 1980s, scientists believed that we responded to risks in the moment as we experienced them. It was thought that humans would carry out a cost/benefit analysis every time we felt we were in a situation of unease. However, subsequent experiments upended this thinking and discovered that we actually use mental shortcuts when measuring danger, with instinct playing a larger part in decision making than originally thought. While these mental shortcuts can be beneficial, they may also result in irrational or suboptimal decisions. Aspects of our response to COVID-19 may be a case in point.

Boxing gloves

University of Oregon Psychologist Paul Slovic has said that the coronavirus “hits all the hot buttons that lead to heightened risk perception”. (Max Fisher, “Coronavirus ‘hits all the hot buttons’ for how we misjudge risk”, New York Times, 14 February 2020). When we encounter risk, our brains quickly search potentially related past experiences. However, in situations of ‘extreme’ danger, our brains often fail to assess whether these past experiences are particularly relevant. Dr Slovic compares our responses to COVID-19 to airplane crashes – when two planes crash in quick succession, flying suddenly becomes scarier, even if we know that there is no link to this statistical aberration and the safety of our upcoming flight. In the New York Times report Dr Slovic asserts that the reaction to coronavirus is like people hearing reports of one plane after another crashing: “We’re hearing about the fatalities. We’re not hearing about the percentages of people who are recovering from it and may have had mild cases”.

This tendency goes both ways. We can have undue alarm or undue complacency. While the flu kills tens of thousands each year, the majority of us recover after a few days. Although we are aware of the risks the flu poses and are encouraged to get the flu vaccination, our own experiences result in our slowness to act. “We’re conditioned by our experiences.” Dr Slovic has said. “But experience can mislead us to be too comfortable with things.”

The first cognitive shortcut that seems to be evident when assessing coronavirus risks involves novelty. We are constantly on the lookout for new dangers or causes for alarm, which may mean that we hone-in on the worst case scenarios and magnify the actual risk at hand. The media is an obvious culprit. Each time there has been a confirmed case of coronavirus in New Zealand this is announced as being “breaking news”. While confirmed cases in New Zealand so far seem small compared to other countries, using the words “breaking news” amplifies each incident and may contribute to mass panic.

Emotion is arguably the most powerful shortcut. The emotions we associate with previous similar events act as strong guiding tools when making decisions. We essentially translate gut emotions into what we believe are reasoned conclusions, even if outside information tells us otherwise. Nobel Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman perfectly summarised this: “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality”.

Emotional impulses overwhelm our cognitive faculties. Certain emotional triggers cause us to act in ways that we would usually consider to be irrational. The first trigger is dread. If a risk appears particularly disturbing, we raise our estimate of how likely it is to happen to us. With COVID-19, for example, images of unhygienic food markets, overcrowded hospitals and cities in lockdown enhance this emotional trigger.

Fear of the unknown is another trigger. If little is understood about a threat, we tend to overestimate the danger. Therefore, it is only natural that when hearing about a virus outbreak with little other information, people resort to hoarding food and other necessities. We tend to overcompensate when we feel that something is out of our control.

False information can also result in compulsive, irrational and dangerous actions. An extreme example occurred in Hong Kong in February, where armed robbers seized 600 rolls of toilet paper following a rumour that Wuhan was a central hub for toilet paper production (Hillary Leung, “Knife-wielding robbers in Hong Kong steal 600 rolls of toilet paper amid coronavirus panic”, Time, 17 February 2020). This was a piece of false information, but lack of correct information and fear of the unknown produced a violent act. It is said that false information is more harmful than no information.

When we start seeing the world or a situation as dangerous or uncertain, we begin to tap into prejudices or stigmas. Senior Scientist at the John Hopkins Centre for Health Security explains: “when people are in that state of mind they start sorting the world into safe people, unsafe people, safe places, unsafe places” (Toby Ord, “Why we need worst case thinking to prevent pandemics”, The Guardian, 6 March 2020). The categorisation of people and places as a result of fear is dangerous but reflects our brain’s instinctual behaviour to deal with information in a way that appears to calm our anxieties. However, working to pinpoint the correct source of the problem is a better way to deal with these emotions and encourages us to act more effectively.

How do these lessons apply to our experiences in mediation and conflict resolution?

Parties often enter into mediation with feelings of hostility towards each other. Up to this point, the parties have often been unwilling to assess the merits/validity of the other side’s arguments and may start the mediation process with narrow minded views that focus on worst case scenarios. They have generally responded to the risks with a lack of optimism, driven by emotions such as anger, fear and distrust.

The mediator must address these mentalities, which hinder the success of the mediation. The process requires discussion and understanding rather than argument and blame. Mediation aims to facilitate and maintain an equitable and forward-thinking relationship by giving the parties the opportunity to convey their concerns, respond to the other party’s issues and then negotiate.

As with societal issues such as the coronavirus, in mediation it is important that all the correct information is communicated, parties try not to act on emotional impulses, and our evaluation of the available information includes recognising that we are subconsciously influenced by emotions and prior experiences.

In mediation and in life, being aware of our cognitive triggers and how they affect our decision making and actions is key to ensuring that we do not act irrationally. Such awareness better equips us to deal with situations of threat, stress and uncertainty. As mediators, we must be attuned to the preconceived emotions, fears and thoughts of the parties and actively work to address them through open and active discussion. As parties in mediation, it is vital that we enter into the process with open minds and some awareness of our own, and the other side’s, cognitive triggers.


Paul Sills paul.sills@paulsills.co.nz is an Auckland barrister and mediator. He specialises in commercial and civil litigation and is an AMINZ Mediation Panel member.

Last updated on the 3rd April 2020