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Me or Us and How to Decide

Standing outside the local coffee shop at the prescribed 1.5meters apart, the man next to me engaged in conversation with those around him. “I’m fully vaccinated”, he said and at once the wide spaced group began the conversation that has possessed the community, particularly since the lockdowns in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne and the protests in major capital cities. This is about life and death for each one of us, our families and community; physically, socially and economically.

Clearly these are not easy decisions, and it raises the questions of how good we are at assessing risk and, in the current circumstances, how do we decide the risks worth taking and those to be avoided. Speaking on Radio National Sunday Extra, Jason Tangen, Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Queensland described humans as ‘loss averse’, dwelling more on what we may lose in any decision, rather than what is to be gained. This is especially in the debate about the AstraZeneca vaccine, where the risk of side effects of blood clots dominates rather that the 95% protection against hospitalization and 60% protection against infection from the Delta strain. He suggests we view this as “less about me and more about we’’, a global problem and social issue where people consider the gains from pro-social behaviour as opposed to being dominated by thoughts of the loss to the individual. He noted that while humans are good at considering probabilities in the hundreds and thousands, are ’terrible’ at reasoning with numbers in the millions and billions when it all becomes ‘a little bit murky’. Research in medical decision making suggests that diagrams and visual tools are helpful in communicating risk and managing uncertainty and we should take note of this in the current situation. This is another context where two forms of communication, verbal and visual stand us in better stead than reliance on words alone.

 

Risk roundtable: Has COVID changed our perception of risk?

By Julian Morrow on Sunday Extra

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