risky behavior

February 18, 2022

I’ve been thinking lately about what we consider risky.

A few months ago, I moved from a large city where almost everyone wears masks to a small town where almost no one wears masks. I still wear my mask when I’m out and about, and I don’t exactly fit in. When I see someone else wearing a mask, like at the grocery store or the post office, I automatically feel a sense of sympatico with them. Masking alone doesn’t make them similar to me in a general sense. It doesn’t mean we share the same values, opinions, or interests. But for some reason, for a brief moment, I feel a connection, because we share the courage to step out into this town with half our faces covered.

Recently, I’ve been getting to know other people who live here, and I find them incredibly friendly. It’s a small town. If you need to move a couch, then no problem: someone knows someone with a truck, who knows someone else who can help with the lifting. Maybe they’ll charge you a small fee because everyone is hustling to make ends meet, but they’ll make it happen. And when they do, they’ll make small talk as if they’ve already met you. They’ll tell you about their kids, show you pictures of their dogs…. very different from the folks in Seattle, where everyone seems guarded and distant.

It’s nice.

What’s especially nice about their openness is that you don’t feel like you have to pry to get to know what they’re thinking. They come right out and tell you.

A couple of weeks ago, I met a woman who lives nearby. She wasn’t masked. As we approached each other, I pulled my mask out as if to put it on. I wasn’t sure what she’d be comfortable with, and I didn’t want her to feel unsafe.

She didn’t care whether I masked or not, and I didn’t have to ask her why. “I’m triple vaxxed,” she said, “If I get COVID, chances are it won’t be that bad. I’ll just be sick for a little bit, and I’ll build even more immunity anyway.”

I can follow that. Given that Omicron, though highly contagious, is also milder than other variants, it seems like not masking is a reasonable risk.

But is it?

In many aspects of life, when we’re faced with a decision, it’s a good idea to calculate the chances in which some future event – an event or condition that could impact the future – is likely to happen. We don’t just do this when it comes to masking. We do this for a lot of decisions we make.

Should you quit your job? What are the chances of finding a better one? If the chances are high that you’ll land something better quickly, quitting doesn’t seem so risky.

Should you break up with your parnter? What are the chances you’ll meet someone better? If you think the chances are low, then leaving might seem like a risk.

If you’re triple vaxxed and Omicron isn’t too awful, then the chances are pretty low that COVID won’t be life-threatening. So, not masking seems like a low-risk decision.

Except for one thing: the human brain sucks at calculating likelihoods. Doing the right math takes time and energy, something our brains aren’t naturally inclined to do. If we took the time and energy to measure risk accurately for every decision we made, there’d be no energy left to sustain the rest of our bodies.

The long road burns too much fuel. So, our brains take short-cuts.

One short-cut involves a sort of rounding we do whenever we come across a situation that is highly likely or highly unlikely. If something is 98% likely to happen, our brains round up and assume it’s 100% likely to happen. If something has a 1-2% chance of happening, our brains will round that likelihood down to zero.

If you’re triple-vaxxed, and if Omicron isn’t as dangerous, there’s probably a very low chance – let’s say a 1% chance – that catching the bug will seriously impact your wellness. But that’s not the same as a 0% chance. Our brains don’t easily know the difference even though the difference is there.

This doesn’t necessarily mean we should all throw our masks on. It just means that when we make the decision, we aren’t aware that we’re using flawed reasoning. If you’re going to make a choice that could significantly impact your health, you want to use the right thinking, no matter what your ultimate choice would be.

Same with quitting your job or leaving your partner. Maybe there’s a 98% chance you’ll find another gig or another soulmate without much trouble. That’s not the same as a 100% chance. This doesn’t mean you need to stay in a situation that makes you unhappy. I’m just saying it’s better to make your decision with open eyes.

We also take shortcuts when we think only about ourselves. It’s super hard to think about the impact of our choices on others, including strangers we may never meet – like the grandma of the neighbor who comes over to drop off some “welcome to the neighborhood” cookies. I don’t mask for myself. I mask for that grandma. What are the chances that my not masking will end her life? I have no idea. My brain hurts just trying to think that through, especially since I have no clue who’s vaxxed and who isn’t.

It's takes energy to calculate, so we don’t think to do it.

A lot of the time, our quick estimations don’t lead us too far off track. Getting it close is often good enough.

But once in a while, when things end up zagging when we think they’re going to zig, we may want to consider whether our “rounding bias” is the reason. Not that we’d do things differently. But it does help when it comes to figuring out what went wrong.

And it could soften the blow when regret kicks in. If we know we messed up because of some natural human tendency to round up or down, it kind of takes the edge off.

And I don’t know about you, but life is hard enough. Fewer edges ain’t half bad.

That is all.


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