The sight of empty grocery shelves — widely shared on social media — combined with the dread of an invisible threat seem a perfect recipe for widespread hysteria. But, so far, despite mixed messages from government officials and shortages of tests and hospital capacity, there is little evidence of widespread panic.
In fact, research into decision-making under threat suggests that concerns about looming mass panic are badly misplaced, according to Ido Erev, a professor of behavioral science and management at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, Isreal. Dr. Erev is president of the European Association for Decision Making.
The following conversation has been edited slightly for clarity.
When does precaution turn to panic in the midst of a threat?
What we find is that there are large differences between individuals in terms of how they respond to threats like this. Everyone tends to overreact somewhat at the beginning. But then, a little experience reverses that sense in most people, and they begin to believe that “it won’t happen to me.”
A minority of people — 10 to 30 percent, depending on the situation — continues to overestimate the risk and behave more hysterically, or overreact. These are the people who are causing much of the rush on supplies like toilet paper and emptying the shelves. This is a problem, of course, because it can prompt the same kind of behavior in others. But the important point is that this is a minority. Most people have the opposite problem.
So the overall effect, over time, is more complacency than panic?
Yes. I returned to Israel from sabbatical in the U.S. during the second Intifada, in 2002. Officials were saying that it was extremely dangerous to be in coffee shops, and my wife and I bought a fancy coffee maker and stayed inside. For a few days, the coffee shops were nearly empty, and the tourists certainly stopped coming. But the locals came out, and soon the places were full again. We knew it was still dangerous; we just began to underweight the risk, with time.
The same thing is likely to happen with the coronavirus. People will self-isolate for a time and then, when nothing happens, they don’t get sick, they’ll begin to go out again — taking more risks than they had planned to.
You see this kind of behavior in a wide variety of experiments. You can give people a choice between two unattractive prospects, in a repeated game: loss of one shekel for sure or a 5 percent chance to lose 20 shekels. Most people prefer the safe prospect in the first five trials or so, but then they switch their preference to the riskier prospect, choosing it about 65 percent of the time. You can adjust the relative risks of the choices, introduce uncertainties and so on, but you see a similar pattern.
The research suggests, in effect, that if you let people decide for themselves how to react, you’ll get two problematic trends: a majority taking progressively more risks with time, and a small minority exhibiting panic-like behaviors, buying out supplies.
Are there effective strategies to delay or reduce the effect of those trends?
Being aware of them is helpful, I think. Most of us, in the coming weeks, will tend to underappreciate the risk.
For leaders, my research highlights the value of rule enforcement, like imposing small fines on people who violate the rules. Although this kind of policy might violate civil rights, I believe that in the context of coronavirus, the benefit is much larger than the cost. I call this gentle rule enforcement: steady enforcement, small penalties. We have seen it work, for instance, in improving safety compliance among workers at manufacturing plants. I think the same kind of approach is smart for countries and states now considering policies to have people stay at home.