The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic just over a year ago, but many Americans are optimistic about the coming months. The United States has now purchased enough vaccine doses to fully vaccinate 300 million Americans, and all adults should be eligible to receive the vaccine by May 1st. These developments are promising, but we are not out of the woods yet. The CDC has continued to stress the importance of social distancing and wearing masks even after being fully vaccinated. Despite this, the number of Americans who say they are social distancing has dropped 17 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, and states like Texas and Mississippi have already lifted COVID restrictions against CDC guidelines. Why are some people abandoning safety measures, while others continue to embrace them? Research in psychology on risk perception can help us understand these differences in people’s behavior, and remind us why it’s important to stay vigilant in spite of our growing optimism.

One way that psychologists try to explain why people make risky decisions in the face of disaster is with the near miss effect. The near miss effect says that people’s future decision-making is affected by their prior experience with near misses—events that could have ended in disaster, but did not by chance. Interpretation of the near miss is key. When people interpret them as events that did not happen, they feel more optimistic and underestimate the danger posed by similar hazards in the future, and consequently take fewer precautions. On the other hand, people who interpret near misses as events that almost happened take more precautions against future hazards. The difference between “didn’t happen” and “almost happened” depends on how vulnerable people feel during the near miss. Participants in one study were less likely to say they would evacuate their homes to avoid a hypothetical hurricane if they learned that similar storms had gone through their neighborhood before without causing property damage. But if participants were told that a tree fell on their neighbor’s house during a hurricane last year, they were more likely to say that they would evacuate. 

The near-miss effect has important implications for the pandemic. Nearly 70 percent of Americans know someone who has had COVID-19, but perceptions of these near misses can vary. Another study suggests that the stronger the negative consequences of the near miss, the more likely we are to interpret it as an “almost” disaster and take fewer risky actions as a result. This suggests that people who know someone who became seriously ill, was hospitalized, or passed away because of COVID may be more strictly complying with CDC guidelines. On the other hand, people who know someone who recovered from COVID relatively unscathed may be more likely to gather in groups and leave their masks at home.

The way we interpret near misses happens almost automatically, but just being aware of how the near miss effect works may help us make better decisions. Experiences with near misses don’t influence our behavior by changing our assessment of risk, but by changing how optimistic we feel. Regardless of our experience with COVID near misses, most of us understand that failing to wear a mask or practice social distancing is risky behavior. But if we haven’t experienced the effects of this pandemic firsthand, we may feel more optimistic about our odds and take these risks anyway. As we grow more hopeful that the end of the pandemic may be near, it is crucial that we listen to the part of us that recognizes risk so we can miss out on less in the future.

Peer edited by Hope Thomson

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