Illustrations: Felicity Marshall

Life Is Now a Game of Risk. Here’s How Your Brain Is Processing It.

Americans are faced with more risk than ever. Understanding how the brain navigates this new reality can build confidence and empathy in everyday decision-making.

When people everywhere took to the streets in early June after Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, Linda Rambert told her friends to stay home.

As a Black woman, and a long-time racial justice activist, the pandemic of systemic racism and police brutality wasn’t new to her. But as the only daughter of a nurse, she also understood the severity of the novel coronavirus and was doing everything she could to protect herself from it — staying home except to go to the grocery store or exercise, wiping down every surface she came into contact with, and urging her friends to do the same.

“I didn’t want to risk myself going out there, and one, becoming a carrier… or catching it and having to go through the quarantine process,” Rambert says. “It was something I was conversating [about] with my friends of all backgrounds, day after day, ‘Hey guys, be safe, be smart. Do what we can from home.’ I was sending text messages, I was sending emails to different city officials, trying to do my part.”

But soon Rambert began to feel like it wasn’t enough. And when the charges against Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, were upgraded from third-degree to second-degree murder, Rambert worried that people would think the job was done and the movement would lose momentum. So she decided to take to the streets.

“I find myself doing crazy things [for the coronavirus], and so I’m like, why not do the same for a fight that impacts me more?” Rambert says. “I can’t sit back and watch anymore because I don’t know how far we will advance if we continue to be quiet.”

Rambert and her girlfriend scrawled “Enough is Enough” and “I Can’t Breathe” on the backs of old Amazon boxes and stepped out into the Miami heat. They joined three other protestors and started walking. An hour later, they were 15 people strong. By three hours in, there were over 100 of them marching together.

“People had on double masks, people had on masks and bandanas. You could see people were a little bit nervous,” she says. But at the same time, “we’re all discussing the pandemic of corona, we’re all discussing the pandemic of police brutality.”

Rambert says potentially being exposed to the virus was worth the risk to stand up and fight for a cause greater than herself. And millions of people across the country agreed, including, to many people’s surprise, epidemiologists and public health experts, although they drew some criticism for the seemingly contradictory stance of condoning the Black Lives Matter protests after condemning the earlier Right to Reopen rallies.

“I think people are seeing that and thinking, ‘Oh, this is a change in opinion,’” says Eleanor Murray, ScD, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University. “But it’s not really a change in message. The message is still ‘Stay home when you can, except for things that are essential to your health and survival,’ and these protests are something that falls in that category.”

The historic protests happening in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic provide an extreme example of the types of decisions, made under the pervasive veil of anxiety and uncertainty, that many Americans are now forced to navigate on a daily basis. Living with the coronavirus means constantly making choices based on risk. It means comparing the risk of a deadly viral pandemic with that of a deadly sociological one. It means deciding between going to work and potentially being exposed to the virus with not having enough money to pay rent or put food on the table. It means sending a child to school with the fear that they could get infected and spread the virus to their family and teachers. And now that we’ve been in lockdown for four months and a vaccine is still many months away, it means weighing the toll social isolation has taken on people’s mental health with the potential damage Covid-19 could do to their lungs.

As the pandemic drags on throughout summer, and states and cities reopen inconsistently across the nation, the differences in how people assess and tolerate risk are heightened. In some cases, the risk assessments themselves are also evolving. With more knowledge about the virus and how to protect ourselves from it, some people have begun to feel as if they have more control and have altered their behaviors accordingly — venturing out of their houses again and expanding their “quaranteams.” In other cases, fatigue has set in and people are flat-out rejecting the restrictions on their lives. And there are still those who have barely left their homes, who haven’t seen family members for months and don’t dare enter a grocery store if they can help it.

“There’s going to be a strong component of your life experience and the environment that you grew up in influencing both brain development and how you make decisions and approach risks.”

When making important decisions, we like to think that humans assess risks rationally, that people weigh the pros and cons of a situation to come to a sensible conclusion. In reality, emotions, particularly fears and desires, play an outsize role in decision-making, and typically we go with our initial gut reaction. What’s more, the brain plays a host of tricks, called cognitive biases, to further convince us that our emotionally led decision is the right one.

“Risk decision-making isn’t conscious, and it’s not what we would define as rational in the sense of evidence-based,” says David Ropeik, author of How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts. “It’s emotional, it’s in the context of how the information we have feels, and that depends on our life circumstances, our education, our health, our age.”

Understanding how the brain weighs what’s safe and what’s worth the risk can help build awareness and confidence in your own decision-making process. And perhaps knowing how and why people differ in their risk calculations can increase empathy for someone who has made a decision different from your own.

How the brain processes risk

An emotional center in the brain, the amygdala, is one of the key regions involved in evaluating risks and making decisions. The area is responsible for triggering feelings of fear by signaling to other brain regions that an outside stimulus — a person, a snake, a news item — may be a potential threat. In response to an alarm from the amygdala, the body starts to release stress hormones and prepares to react in one of three ways: flight, fight, or freeze.

Whether people perceive a situation to be risky or not is partly due to how their amygdala responds. For example, the free-solo climber Alex Honnold — who has accomplished superhuman feats that make most people’s palms sweat just thinking about, like scaling some of Yosemite’s highest granite walls without ropes — has an under-active amygdala; his brain doesn’t respond to frightening or upsetting images in the same way as most people. Consequently, he doesn’t find standing on a two-inch ledge 1,000 feet up to be scary.

For the average person living in the Before Times, seeing a person wearing a face mask might trigger a fear response in the amygdala, as masks are typically associated with someone who is sick or potentially hiding their face for a nefarious reason. The resulting behavior would likely be to try to avoid that person — the flight reaction.

Human decisions aren’t entirely driven by fear, though. The brain has an override system, rooted in a region called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, that evaluates whether the amygdala is over-reacting and allows the brain to evaluate decisions more rationally. The amygdala and this prefrontal area are directly connected, and the two regions influence one another — the amygdala tells the ventromedial prefrontal cortex that something is important and potentially threatening, and the prefrontal cortex places that alert in context, assessing whether the threat is serious and how to respond.

“That connection is very important for your ability to calm yourself down when you’re anxious, your ability to reframe a situation so as to make it less scary than it might initially seem, and it’s involved in regulating different forms of negative emotion,” says Joseph Kable, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “We also know that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is an area that plays a role in weighing the costs and benefits of competing courses of action and then deciding which course of action seems more beneficial.”

Thanks to a reevaluation led by the prefrontal cortex, many people’s associations with masks have shifted during the pandemic to where a person wearing a mask is now seen as a responsible citizen. The amygdala has learned that masks are no longer a threat. Instead, seeing a person approach without wearing a mask might cause the amygdala to trigger a fear response and prompt an urge to flee or even fight.

The amygdala’s initial emotional response and the prefrontal cortex’s slower, more rational processing work together in this way to help people make decisions. “There are components of that evaluation that are more implicit and emotional, and there are components of that evaluation that involve more reasoning about the probabilities and the benefits,” Kable explains. “Your ultimate decision, your ultimate evaluation is going to be a mixture of both of those influences.”

Kable has studied how connections between the amygdala and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex differ based on people’s tolerance for risk, both in laboratory settings using a gambling game and through questions about people’s real-world risky activities, like smoking or speeding. He discovered that the likelihood that someone takes a risk is related to both the structure of their amygdala and its connection to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

The research begs the question of how the differences in risk tolerance got there, and whether risk-taking is learned or genetic. Kable says that, like all individual differences, the answer is both. “There’s going to be a strong component of your life experience and the environment that you grew up in influencing both brain development and how you make decisions and approach risks, as well as components from genetics and the interaction between your genes and the environment,” he says. “We know that there is a contribution from genes, and that contribution from genes partly seems to have an influence on behavior through its effects on brain structure.”

If you’re less likely to eat a piece of cheese with a little bit of mold on it, you might also be less likely to go outside without a mask on.

Another important brain region involved in making decisions is the insula. This area processes feelings of disappointment and loss, influencing our perception of the potential negative outcomes of taking a risk. The insula is also involved in feelings of disgust, which cause us to want to avoid a given situation. Disgust is particularly relevant for the coronavirus pandemic because of its role in the so-called behavioral immune system — the unconscious actions and habits people take to avoid getting sick.

Simone Schnall, PhD, director of the Body, Mind and Behaviour Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, says that the behavioral immune system is the body’s preliminary defense against germs because it helps prevent people from encountering them in the first place. “A big part of that is feelings of physical disgust. I don’t eat things that smell bad. I don’t touch things that are sticky and disgusting. I stay away from people who are coughing and sneezing my way,” she says. “When I feel disgusted, it’s a very strong emotion that tells me, ‘Stay away from that.’”

Just as people differ in their tolerance for risk, they also vary in their sensitivity to disgust and how upsetting they find certain disgusting situations to be, like seeing maggots crawl out of a piece of meat. Schnall discovered that the two metrics, risk and disgust, are linked — the higher somebody is on disgust sensitivity, the riskier they perceive certain scenarios. This correlation suggests that some people are cautious across the board in response to situations that could cause them bodily harm. For example, if you’re less likely to eat a piece of cheese with a little bit of mold on it, you might also be less likely to go outside without a mask on.

Asymptomatic Covid-19 infections may have thrown a wrench in the ability of the behavioral immune system to do its job. When people don’t appear ill and aren’t coughing or sneezing, we don’t have the salient cues to tell us that they’re sick, and so we don’t intrinsically know to stay away from them.

Schnall thinks that the behavioral immune system is strong enough to activate even if the disgust cues aren’t present. “If you know there is danger out there, it also puts you in that hyper-vigilant state because you have to be alert,” she says. “One doesn’t actually have to have that feeling of disgust right then and there, it could be more of a mindset to try to keep yourself safe.” However, other experts disagree, saying that the absence of symptoms may lull people into a false sense of security, thinking that a person is safe when they’re not.

Too much risk to assess

The asymptomatic predicament highlights the first breakdown in the risk assessment process when it comes to Covid-19. Ordinarily, the brain’s decision-making system works fairly well. It keeps us safe when we’re choosing whether or not to walk down a dark alley or cross a busy street. It’s enabled our species to survive for millions of years. But some of the threats and risks we’re now facing are beyond its capacity.

“We’ve evolved the system that we have to perceive danger in a way that mostly works — here we are! The problem is, we evolved it when the risks were simpler and those instinctive reactions had a higher percentage of working well,” says Ropeik. “Now, climate change, pandemics, over-crowded cities, overfishing of the ocean, globalization, these things are way beyond the instinctive nature of our risk system. And so we’re starting to make more and more mistakes, in general, about the big complicated ones because they demand more slow critical thinking than fast reactive emotion.”

Some of the flaws in the risk assessment system may make the pandemic seem riskier than it actually is and cause people to take excessive protective measures — although the virus is pretty damn risky and is arguably a situation where you can’t be too careful. Other cognitive biases and characteristics of the current situation may cause people to under-estimate the risk, which in some states is resulting in disastrous consequences.

“Climate change, pandemics…globalization, these things are way beyond the instinctive nature of our risk system. And so we’re starting to make more and more mistakes, in general.”

Risk heighteners

“Risks have psychological personality traits that make them feel more or less scary,” Ropeik says. “A risk that’s new, like Covid, is scarier than one with which we’ve lived for a while.”

Although it feels like lockdown has lasted forever, the novel coronavirus is still a relatively new threat, which makes it scarier than older more familiar viruses like influenza. Even though the flu kills hundreds of thousands of people every year, it’s become so common that people aren’t scared of it anymore. To be clear, Covid-19 is not just another flu — the infection is deadlier, more infectious, and causes more severe symptoms in young and previously healthy people. But fear of Covid-19 is in some ways not only a fear of the disease itself but also a fear of the unknown.

When the virus emerged in January, the world knew virtually nothing about it. And while scientists have uncovered a tremendous amount of information over the last six months, some of that information has been contradictory (airborne spread, anyone?), and there are still many more questions unanswered than answered.

“To me, the most salient thing about making decisions with respect to coronavirus is that people are faced with having to make those decisions knowing that we don’t know all the facts,” says Kable. “It’s a virus that only recently infected humans, it wasn’t an issue for us a year ago, and so we’re still very much learning about how it works and what the risks are.”

In general, humans do very poorly with this kind of ambiguity. The less that’s known about a risk, the riskier it seems, and decisions are more fraught than they would be if all the facts were available. The exception to this rule is young adults.

Between the ages of 18 and 24 is when risky behavior peaks, and that’s due in large part to a lack of discomfort with the unknown. If adolescents know how risky a situation is, they are as likely to choose the safer option as an adult. For example, in a 2012 study where people were faced with a gambling task, teens and adults equally avoided bets that could earn them more money but had a lower chance of winning, choosing the smaller sure thing instead. But if the risk was ambiguous — if the chances of winning or losing money were unknown — young adults were more apt to take the risky gamble than adults were.

Psychologists have speculated that this appetite for ambiguity makes sense evolutionarily because it allows youths to seek out new opportunities (cities, jobs, partners) when the potential gains and losses are unknown. On a biological level, the prefrontal cortex, that more rational self-control center, is the last region of the brain to develop, so adolescents are driven even more by emotion than adults are.

When it comes to the pandemic, a greater tolerance for the unknown might explain why young people have started taking to the bars and beaches — and driving new waves of infections. A youthful sense of invincibility and the early messaging that people their age are less likely to get a severe case of Covid-19 undoubtedly also play a role, but many young people really do perceive the situation to be less risky than their parents do. Unfortunately, their perception of the risk doesn’t reflect its reality, and states like Texas, Florida, and Arizona have seen scary spikes in cases largely driven by young people.

“A risk that’s new, like Covid, is scarier than one with which we’ve lived for a while.”

A sense of control is another factor that influences how dangerous risks are perceived. The newness and ambiguity of Covid-19, especially when it first emerged, left many people feeling helpless. With so many questions about how the virus spread, where it was popping up and why, and who was most at risk, people didn’t know the best way to protect themselves, which exacerbated feelings of fear.

With so few answers about what was in store and how to stay safe, people were left scrambling for ways to wrest back some semblance of control. Some of the steps people took were based on sound public health advice and helped prevent the spread of the virus, such as washing their hands obsessively and adhering to shelter-in-place guidelines. However, other people took more extreme and likely unnecessary steps — in some cases at the recommendation of viral YouTube videos — such as disinfecting mail and groceries, hoarding food and toilet paper, and even buying guns.

“Can we control the risk? If we can, if we think we can, if we feel we can, we feel safer,” says Ropeik. “When we’re inside by ourselves, that feels like control, which reduces the scariness. By the way, so does buying guns when you’re scared…So does buying toilet paper — ‘Look, I’m doing something, I’m taking control.’”

Risk depressors

On the other side of the equation are cognitive biases that cause us to downplay the risk and convince ourselves that we’ll be all right, particularly if we want to take the riskier option. For example, people tend to only believe in problems they can see. If an outbreak isn’t happening in your town or you don’t personally know anyone who’s gotten Covid-19, it’s hard to imagine that it’s occurring at all and that life is different elsewhere.

This issue has proven particularly pernicious in the United States. Smaller, more compact, and, to some extent, more homogenous countries like Italy took sweeping nationwide actions against the virus because virtually the entire country was affected at the same time. But in the U.S., an early surge in the Northeast was almost imperceptible elsewhere. The distance, both in geography and in lifestyle, left people in the South and West feeling like the problem was “over there” and that their communities would be spared. But easy intracontinental travel means no place is immune, and even more remote states like Idaho and Montana are now seeing a relative spike in cases.

“Because we don’t like feeling vulnerable, can we talk ourselves out of it? Can we say, ‘Well, it really doesn’t happen in our part of the city or the state or the United States, it happens somewhere else to people different from us,’” says Paul Slovic, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon. “If we can convince ourselves that it’s other people and not us that are at risk, then we can relax and go out and party or work at our job.”

Closely related is confirmation bias — if we want to do something, we search for the information that supports our decision and ignore the information that doesn’t. For example, if you’re a young person and want to go out and see your friends, you focus on the news that says older people are more vulnerable and tune out the tales of people your age falling ill. This bias eases feelings of conflict or guilt about a difficult decision once we’ve made it. It prevents buyer’s remorse, but it also impairs the ability to reconsider a bad choice.

Another particularly strong bias at play is the optimism bias: It won’t go as badly for me as it will for somebody else. “That’s the rationalization tool used for taking risks,” says Ropeik. “We use that all the time to do all sorts of risky things — drunk driving, jaywalking, speeding, going out in the sun without protection for our skin, you name it — so that we can do stuff that’s risky.”

Humans are also really bad at numbers. “A lot of people are innumerate. Almost a third of our adult population in the U.S. can do only very simple processes with numbers,” says Ellen Peters, PhD, director of the Center for Science Communication Research at the University of Oregon. “They can count and sort numbers, they can do simple arithmetic, but they likely don’t understand coronavirus statistics very well because they’re complicated, they’re constantly changing.”

The exponential spread of the pandemic is especially hard to understand. We expect numbers to grow linearly, so we think that small numbers will increase gradually, and we’ll see it as it happens. But with the coronavirus, cases start small, quietly doubling in a community, until all of the sudden they seem to explode.

“The path of this disease is really odd for how the human mind works in terms of numeric risks,” Peters says. “When it comes to that kind of nonlinear growth, [people] tend to underestimate it, because we don’t really get this idea that if you start with one person infected today, that’s two tomorrow, and four the next day, and eight the next day. What you don’t think about is that after not too long, that goes into the hundreds and then into the thousands. We’re more accustomed to things increasing in a much less rapid way.”

Probabilities are also particularly tricky for people to evaluate. People tend to overestimate the likelihood that something will happen, and we all think that we will be the “one” regardless of whether the odds are one in 10 or one in a million.

“We tend to overestimate very small probabilities,” says Kable. “We tend to look at all of those one in 1,000, one in 10,000 as ‘Okay, so you’re telling me there’s a chance.’”

Another type of math humans are really bad at is comprehending large numbers, particularly when it pertains to loss. “A single life is very important, we do a lot to protect an individual life or to rescue someone in distress,” Slovic says. “But as the number of people at risk increases, we don’t necessarily do more proportionally as the numbers grow, and sometimes we do less.”

Slovic says this is because we can visualize and emotionally connect to a single person’s distress, and that emotional connection drives us to try to want to help them. But as the number of people increases, our feelings can’t scale up, they’re maxed out with the first person. For example, if you hear that 87 people have died in an accident, and then you learn that it’s actually 88 people, you won’t feel any differently.

One way to overcome some of these biases is through evocative stories or images that personalize the victims and drive home how great the risk is. “Compelling stories can have these really strong effects on people, whereas they completely ignore numeric information,” Peters says. For example, the vivid images of people in the intensive care unit on ventilators and stories of young healthy people dying are emotionally powerful and can shake us out of our apathy and denial. And if those stories are from someone you know, even better. The more you can relate to a story, either because the victim is similar to you or is connected to your personal social circle, the more it will penetrate.

Finally, there are no real rewards for adhering to all of the guidelines, only negative consequences for not doing so. There are, however, many immediate costs of following the rules, although the downsides are arguably orders of magnitude lower than chronic illness or death. There are also no immediate ramifications for not being careful because it takes days to weeks for someone to develop symptoms if they do get infected.

“You don’t feel a benefit from taking precautions, and you don’t feel the cost from not taking precautions. That’s a reinforcement that, over time, the behavior will extinguish, in psychological terms,” Slovic says. “The only way to keep society doing it is through enforcement, through laws and regulations that are enforced aggressively. Otherwise, the behavior is going to fade away.”

The ‘fuck it’ stage

As the pandemic has dragged on and in many ways gotten worse instead of better, a problem has emerged that is less about a cognitive bias and more about a shift in attitude. Some people have become fatigued by living in a constant state of worry and the restrictions placed on their lives — they’ve reached the “fuck it” stage. It’s not that they don’t believe in the virus or think that they’re immune to it, but the costs of living under lockdown have become too great, particularly with no end in sight. And if people don’t know how long a challenge is going to last, they’re more liable to just give up.

When shelter-in-place started, most people assumed they would be stuck at home for a few weeks. They watched Tiger King, did jigsaw puzzles, and made sourdough bread thinking that their temporary sacrifices would contribute to the greater good and lead to a quick resolution. But as the restrictions and closures have stretched on, not seeing friends or family, not being able to work, and not having childcare have become a greater and greater burden. So with no sign of the pandemic winding down any time soon, people have started to reevaluate which risks are worth taking.

For many people, that reassessment coincided with the murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of a cause — ending police brutality and systemic racism — that was more important than their own health. The protests also provided people with a compelling reason to leave home and reunite with others, potentially for the first time in months.

Ropeik says this timing is not a coincidence. “The driver that’s now weighing on a lot of people’s hearts is, on the one hand, fear of the disease, still strong, but on the other hand, now a growing anxiety over not being in control of their own lives and freedom,” he says. “And that non-control and uncertainty makes certain choices feel better, like, ‘I’m getting out of here and going to the protest, dammit.’ Which is partly about the protest because you care, but partly because — the damnit part is — ‘I don’t want to feel stuck anymore, I want to be back in control.’”

It turns out that protests during a pandemic are not unusual — in fact, they’re almost expected. Nicole Fisher, DrPH, founder and president of Health and Human Rights Strategies, predicted in March that there would be protests during the lockdown by looking at the history of previous quarantines. She found that, dating back to the 18th century, there have been dozens of cases of riots during outbreaks of the plague, cholera, smallpox, swine flu, and Ebola due to fear of the disease combined with anger about the restrictions.

“With no sign of the pandemic winding down any time soon, people have started to re-evaluate which risks are worth taking.”

The Black Lives Matter protests are obviously about a problem much larger and dating back much longer than quarantine. But the fact that the movement, which has been around since 2013, finally took off in 2020 and attracted such an enormous outpouring of support — by some estimates as many as 26 million Americans took part — during a deadly pandemic suggests that there might be other motivators at play than simply support for the cause. Because of the coronavirus, the risk of protesting in 2020 is significantly greater than it was in previous years, and yet millions more people decided to take part.

The protests also emerged at a time when people knew more about the virus and how to protect themselves. The risk calculation is more nuanced now than it was in March, and people feel that they have a little more control over the situation. For example, we now know that the virus can be spread through close face-to-face conversation in enclosed spaces, but if you avoid those situations by wearing a mask, seeing people outside, and staying six feet apart, your chance of catching the virus is substantially lower.

The precautions people took at the protests — outdoors, wearing masks — reflect this knowledge, and not only did they make the experience feel safer at the time, they really do seem to have worked. Although the U.S. is experiencing an alarming spike in cases at the moment, experts say they are most likely not due to organized marches and demonstrations. In fact, in Minneapolis, the epicenter of the movement, there was a decline in cases during the month of June. Instead, the surge is centered in states that reopened prematurely and allowed indoor dining, drinking, bowling, and other non-essential activities without a mask mandate.

The success of the protests from a safety standpoint opened the door for people to start venturing out of their homes more. One protestor who spoke to Elemental said that since the demonstrations he’s started to see friends again, although always masked and trying to maintain distance. “That has just reinforced the feeling that I can do this safely,” he says. “There are ways still to be out physically and be safe about it.”

A different way to manage risk

Public health experts agree that the risk from the virus, in regards to both people and situations, is not uniform. Although no one is immune to the novel coronavirus, some people do have a greater chance of developing severe Covid-19 infections because of their age or pre-existing conditions. And while staying home is by far the safest option, not all activities confer the same amount of risk. There are now several well-thought-out graphics communicating the relative safety of various behaviors.

Consequently, the strategy for suppressing the virus has pivoted to a more tailored one focusing on harm reduction rather than a sweeping lockdown. This approach is more sustainable for the long term, and there’s a history of harm reduction strategies being deployed for other infectious diseases. For example, instead of advocating for abstinence only to stop the spread of HIV, sexual health experts recommend using condoms, pre-exposure prophylaxis drugs such as Truvada, and other preventive steps.

“It’s really important to think about how do we help people with harm reduction approaches rather than just, ‘Don’t come anywhere near a virus,’” says Murray, the Boston epidemiologist. “The lockdown was never going to last forever, because even if we could have kept the economy going during lockdown, people would have gotten so sick of it.”

If you’re weighing whether an activity is low or high risk, Murray and others advise considering the following:

  • Be aware of where the outbreak stands in your region. If cases are on the rise, the risk is going to be higher.
  • Regardless of where you’re located, always wear a mask, especially when you’re in close contact with others.
  • Being outside is much safer than being inside.
  • If at all possible, try to maintain physical distance from other people, and stay away from crowded areas.
  • Avoid yelling or singing in public, which can project droplets further than just talking.
  • If you think you’ve potentially been exposed to the virus, quarantine yourself for two weeks. If test results can be returned in five days or less, you can also consider getting tested, but with current long turnaround times you’re better off just self-isolating.
  • If you are in a high-risk group — such as being immunocompromised, over the age of 65, or having a pre-existing condition — or if you live with a person who is, you probably want to rethink public activities.
  • Finally, if you have symptoms or think you may have Covid-19, it’s imperative that you stay home so that you don’t infect others.

Murray says that if everyone takes these physical harm reduction steps, the risk for society would be much lower, and in some places, like the Northeast, it already is. “People are taking precautions to not get infected — they’re taking precautions to protect themselves and protect other people — so I think it’s probably less risky to go out now than it was three, four months ago when nobody was taking any precautions at all,” she says. Going forward, though, she emphasizes that the reduction in risk “is not the same thing as saying we no longer need to take precautions… The reduced risk comes from doing these activities, and so continuing to do them is important in order to continue to be able to have a reduced risk.”

There are also psychological harm reduction tactics you can take based on what you now know about how the brain processes risk. Most importantly, slow down your decision-making process. Don’t just go with your initial knee-jerk response if you want (or don’t want) to do something, really think through your personal level of risk and that of the situation you want to enter. Do your research, too. Seek out the latest case information in your town and what public health officials are advising.

“Think through, what are the actual risks? What are the mitigating strategies that are likely possible? And what are the benefits to my being there?” Peters advises. And, she says, if you find yourself experiencing decision fatigue and becoming laxer in your protective behaviors or judgments of what’s safe, “remind yourself of some of the horrible things that can happen.”

You should also think about your motivations for wanting to take a given risk, and consider if there are safer ways to satisfy the root need. For example, if you want to go out to eat in a restaurant, is that because you’re tired of cooking at home? If so, get takeout instead. Is it because you associate restaurants with socializing? Meet friends for a socially distanced hang in a park or someone’s backyard. And if you really must dine out, make sure you take a harm reduction approach: sit outside, make sure the tables are at least six feet apart, and wear a mask when you’re not eating.

For the trickier dilemmas, such as whether and how to send children back to school safely, there are no easy answers. However, you can still evaluate the safety precautions taken by the school, as well as your own personal risk and that of your family members. If you or someone you live with is elderly or immunocompromised, the risk of what could happen if your family is exposed to the virus is much greater, and it’s important to take that into account in your decision.

Try not to succumb to peer pressure, too. Don’t assume that someone else’s priorities and decision-making processes are the same as your own. Remember that everyone has different personal, professional, and familial situations that change their risk calculations, not to mention their own individual tolerance for risk and ambiguity. On the flip side, don’t pressure someone else to take a risk they’re not comfortable with. Now is a time to defer to the most cautious person in your home or pod.

Finally, be gentle with yourself. We are living through an unprecedented global pandemic that is omnipresent and yet changing all the time. The situation is scary and there are a lot of unknowns. It’s okay to be uncertain, and it’s okay to change your mind. Something that felt safe one week may feel too risky the next. All anyone can do is the best they can, and wear a mask.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

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By Elemental

A weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, by Elemental senior writer Dana Smith. Take a look.

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