Reopening is a mess. Photographs of crowds jostling outside bars, patrons returning to casinos, and a tightly packed, largely maskless audience listening to President Donald Trump’s speech at Mount Rushmore all show the U.S. careening back to pre-coronavirus norms. Meanwhile, those of us watching at home are like the audience of a horror movie, yelling “Get out of there!” at our screens. As despair rises, the temptation to shame people who fail at social distancing becomes difficult to resist.
But Americans’ disgust should be aimed at governments and institutions, not at one another. Individuals are being asked to decide for themselves what chances they should take, but a century of research on human cognition shows that people are bad at assessing risk in complex situations. During a disease outbreak, vague guidance and ambivalent behavioral norms will lead to thoroughly flawed thinking. If a business is open but you would be foolish to visit it, that is a failure of leadership.
Since March, Americans have lived under a simple instruction: Stay home. Now, even as case counts spike in states such as Arizona, Florida, and Texas, many other states continue to ease restrictions on businesses, and suddenly the burden is on individuals to engage in some of the most frustrating and confounding cost-benefit analyses of their life. Pandemic decision making implicates at least two complex cognitive tasks: moral reasoning and risk evaluation.