Between optimism and pessimism in a pandemic

We could attribute unrealistic optimism to those who do not wear the mask because they do not believe it is necessary while an example of a defensive pessimist is that of those who stockpile for three months. Neither end seems to be an optimal strategy for surviving Covid in the best possible way in an emergency.


Advertising message Resuming one’s daily life in a pandemic period leads people to ask themselves several questions, first of all “What risk do I have of being infected?”

Everyone tries to answer this question by relying on different sources, some of which are external and objective, others personal and sometimes fallacious.

The answers we give ourselves inevitably end up in a continuum that goes from one end to the other, between an unrealistic optimism (“it is impossible for me to get sick”) to a defensive pessimism (“if I go out, it is very easy for me to contract the virus”). Thus, many apparently bold ones seem not to fear contagion at all, while others who are excessively frightened do not take advantage of small freedoms even when these are granted. But neither of the two alternatives seems successful.

In fact, unrealistic optimism is “an error of judgment that produces an underestimation of the risk that one runs personally compared to a generic average person” (Weinstein, 1980). It is easy to imagine how dangerous the effects that can ensue are: in fact, the tendency to think of being immune to harmful events produces an increase in risk-taking and thus in the vulnerability of the individual (Perloff, 1987). We could attribute unrealistic optimism to those who don’t wear the mask because they don’t think it’s necessary. In fact, it does not seem to be very different who does not wear a seat belt because he thinks he can drive well or who smokes excessively because he has never had lung problems so far. That said,

The extreme opposite to unrealistic optimism is defensive pessimism (Norem, 2001). This consists of a cognitive strategy through which the individual promises possible negative outcomes and by virtue of these he prepares to act preventively. In this sense, pessimism takes on a more adaptive value by limiting exposure to dangers and favoring the regulation of affective states such as anxiety. However, always being prepared for the worst could overestimate the risk, prevent you from looking at reality objectively and neutralize the possibility of living peacefully where there is no imminent danger. In this case, a case in point of defensive pessimism is that of those who stockpile for three months even when supermarkets do not threaten to close.

Neither extremes seem to be an optimal strategy to survive at best in times of a health emergency. The ideal would be, in fact, to be able to carry out an objective assessment of the risks and on the basis of this to better regulate one’s own behavior.

However, studies say that humans easily fail in estimating probabilities and are not able to perceive the risk for what it really is. This might seem like a contradiction in an era in which the calculation of probabilities becomes more and more exact, but we have to deal with some traps of the mind in which man inevitably falls.

Advertising message How is this possible? Imagine that this receives a huge amount of information (even inconsistent among them) about the Covid-19 and its possibility of contagion during a day. Each of these is screened, modified and inserted into a general idea that is as coherent as possible. In this process, an own key to understanding the event is formed. This determines the selection and modification of the incoming information, facilitates the persistence of personal beliefs even without an empirical basis (“persistence of the belief”) and the search for difficult evidence to support one’s hypothesis (confirmation bias),

Furthermore, the individual also relies on heuristics, shortcuts of thought that favor the issue of quick and efficient judgments. These are intuitive guides which, if on the one hand facilitate the work of our busy mind, on the other are not always exact. In particular, in the case of risk assessment, availability heuristic seems to be particularly involved. It consists of an estimate of the probabilities that a given future event has to happen on the basis of the availability of relevant events in memory. Therefore, a mistake to which the availability heuristic could lead us is that of assuming a low probability of contagion only because no person who has contracted the virus is known.

Other factors such as the familiarity with the danger, the acceptability of the risk, the degree of uncertainty that this implies, the perception of control over the event, the severity of the consequences, the possibilities of remedy, etc. (Slovic, 1987). These cognitive processes are also accompanied by emotional components, no less important and equally influential. It is therefore only considering the totality of the constructs involved that one can understand the origin of the discrepancy between the objective risk assessment and the subjective perception (Slovic, 2001).

Looking at this error in the functioning of man, one wonders how he managed to survive the many and imminent dangers that the primitive era entailed if today he is unable to perform an objective risk assessment, despite the presence of statistical data.