One of the most interesting facets of the Covid-19 pandemic is the incredible divide between what people think and the actual facts of our current reality.
It is a textbook case of the power of the media and of propaganda in shaping people's emotions, attitudes and beliefs.
Early on when the first impacts of Covid-19 were being felt (March 12, 2020) I warned about the fallibilities of humans in dealing with what we were facing.
There are two fundamental truths about human beings that I always keep in mind.
First, the natural human condition is to be a conformist. People do not generally like to separate themselves too far from the herd.
Second, there is nothing more contagious than fear.
We are seeing both in vivid detail right now.
I think you could fairly say that we are into a 4-D technicolor version regarding our reaction to Covid-19 about now.
On that same day I wrote the passage above a psychiatrist had just made a tv appearance in New York City when he entered the green room just off the studio to speak to the next guest who was going to talk about the emerging pandemic. The two had a brief conversation as recounted by Jeffrey A. Tucker in a recent article, "When Will The Madness End."
A thin, wise-looking bearded man with Freud-style glasses sat down across from me, having just left the studio. He was there to catch his breath following his interview but he looked deeply troubled.
“There is fear in the air,” I said, breaking the silence.
“Madness is all around us. The public is adopting a personality disorder I’ve been treating my whole career.”
“What is it that you do?” I asked.
“I’m a practicing psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety disorders, paranoid delusions, and irrational fear. I’ve been treating this in individuals as a specialist. It’s hard enough to contain these problems in normal times. What’s happening now is a spread of this serious medical condition to the whole population. It can happen with anything but here we see a primal fear of disease turning into mass panic. It seems almost deliberate. It is tragic. Once this starts, it could take years to repair the psychological damage.”
I sat there a bit stunned, partially because speaking in such apocalyptic terms was new in those days, and because of the certitude of his opinion. Underlying his brief comments were a presumption that there was nothing particularly unusual about this virus. We’ve evolved with them, and learned to treat them with calm and professionalism. What distinguished the current moment, he was suggesting, was not the virus but the unleashing of a kind of public madness.
As I have also written before, the drumbeat of repetition by the media can be extremely dangerous in that it can trigger the "illusory truth effect" in humans. This is the fundamental principle that underlies propaganda. Simply stated, the more often we hear something the more likely we are to believe that it is true---even if it is a complete fabrication.
All of this is useful perspective in considering the results of recent research by Franklin Templeton and Gallup to understand the behavioral response to Covid-19 and the perception of risk. Franklin Templeton is an investment firm so they were examining this subject to determine how this all relates to the pricing of that risk in the marketplace and the "safety premium" various individuals might pay for various purchases.
This is the major conclusion of that research.
We find a gross misperception of COVID-19 risk, driven by partisanship and misinformation, and a willingness to pay a significant “safety premium” that could affect future inflation.
Let's look at some of the results of the research.
This chart compares the actual share of deaths by age groups with what people believe are the share of deaths for each age cohort.
These are the comments made in the survey about these findings.
Six months into this pandemic, Americans still dramatically misunderstand the risk of dying from COVID-19:
On average, Americans believe that people aged 55 and older account for just over half of total COVID-19 deaths; the actual figure is 92%.
Americans believe that people aged 44 and younger account for about 30% of total deaths; the actual figure is 2.7%.
Americans overestimate the risk of death from COVID-19 for people aged 24 and younger by a factor of 50; and they think the risk for people aged 65 and older is half of what it actually is (40% vs 80%).
What is most telling is the following chart that compares the % of those in each age group who say they fear the health consequences from Covid-19 compared to the actual mortality data.
For those in the age 18-24 demographic, the share of those who fear serious health consequences is 400 times higher than the actual mortality data!
The only group that realistically understands their actual risk profile are those age 65+.
"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”