Your Individually Rational Choice Is Collectively Disastrous

Stopping the virus from spreading requires us to override our basic intuitions.

A woman singing inside a shower stall at a karaoke place.
Carlos Osorio / REUTERS

About the author: Yascha Mounk is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the founder of Persuasion.

Over the summer, parts of the United States seemed to have a grip on the pandemic. New York and much of the Northeast, for instance, recorded relatively few new infections. The pandemic gloom was taking a less heavy toll than it had in its first months, partly because warm weather made restrictions on indoor activity more bearable.

That sense of control was illusory. As the seasons have changed, the virus has resumed its exponential spread. The public’s willingness to follow health guidelines also feels more tenuous. After months of sacrifice, many people seem simply to lack the will to keep up their social-distancing efforts.

Many factors help explain America’s abject failure to contain the pandemic. A good number of them can be traced back to Donald Trump. But many democracies with able leaders, such as Germany and Canada, are also struggling to contain the virus, so pointing to the president’s lies and incompetence isn’t sufficient.

One major problem is that stopping the virus from spreading requires us to override our basic intuitions. Three cognitive biases make it hard for us to avoid actions that put us in great collective danger.

1. Misleading Feedback

Most people are capable of learning difficult skills like swimming, riding a bike, or cooking a decent meal because these activities provide a lot of instant feedback on what you’re doing right, or wrong. If you put far too much salt in the sauce, your pasta will taste memorably bad. The next time, you’ll know what mistakes to avoid.

But some activities, including dangerous ones, provide negative feedback only rarely. When I am in a rush, I often cross the street at a red light. I understand intellectually that this is stupid, but I’ve never once seen evidence of my stupidity. In fact, every time I cross on red, the world sends me a signal that it’s safe: After all, I’ve never (yet) been hit by a car! So I keep crossing on red.

Exposure to COVID-19 works the same way. Every time you engage in a risky activity—like meeting up with your friends indoors—the world is likely to send you a signal that you made the right choice. I saw my pal and didn’t get sick. Clearly, I shouldn’t have worried so much about socializing! But that is just as wrong as thinking that jaywalking is safe because you haven’t yet been hit by a car.

Let’s assume, for example, that going to a large indoor gathering gives you a one in 20 chance of contracting COVID-19—a significant risk. Most likely, you’ll get away with it the first time. You’ll then infer that taking part in such gatherings is pretty safe, and will do so again. Eventually, you are highly likely to fall sick.

2. Individually Rational, Collectively Disastrous

We tend to think behavior that is justifiable on the individual level is also justifiable on the collective level, and vice versa. If eating the occasional sugary treat is fine for me it’s fine for all of us. And if smoking indoors is bad for me, it’s bad for all of us.

The dynamics of contagion in a pandemic do not work like that. If the case numbers in your part of the country are still relatively low—spoiler alert: They’re not—inviting five of your friends over for an indoor dinner party might not pose an unacceptably high risk for any one of you. As long as everyone is relatively young and nobody has serious preexisting conditions, the direct risk to your health is quite small.

But if everyone who isn’t at especially high risk held similar dinner parties, some percentage of these events would lead to additional infections. And because each newly infected person might spread the virus to others, everyone’s decision to hold a one-off dinner party would quickly lead to a significant spike in transmissions.

The dynamic here is reminiscent of classic collective-action problems. If you go to one dinner, you’ll likely be fine. But if everyone goes to one dinner, the virus will spread with such speed that your own chances of contracting COVID-19 will also rise precipitously.

In a pandemic, what is individually rational can be collectively disastrous.

3. Dangers Are Hard to Recognize and Avoid

Many of the dangers we face in life are easy to spot—and we have, over many millennia, developed biological instincts and social conventions to avoid them. Take the case of fire. Most hot objects are easily identified. Your body tells you to stay away from them. Our societal norms discourage people from playing with fire. Everything conspires to keep us safe.

When we deal with an unaccustomed danger, such as a new airborne virus, we can’t rely on any of these protective mechanisms.

The virus is invisible. This makes it hard to spot or anticipate. We don’t see little viral particles floating through the air while we are chatting with a friend who’s infected. Nor can we anticipate the dry cough of someone passing us on the street. Avoiding a fire is easy; avoiding a virus is hard.

To make things worse, neither our biological instincts nor our social conventions push us away from this danger. A few months ago, for example, I agreed to a business meeting at an outdoor restaurant. When I arrived and my acquaintance stuck out his hand, I knew that I should not take it. But in the split second I had to make my decision, I couldn’t think of the right words or the right movement to stay safe. Almost automatically, I shook his hand, having succumbed to a social instinct honed over the many years of my life during which pandemics were the preserve of history books and sci-fi movies.

In time, we can overcome these biases (at least to some extent).

We can spread the message about the dangers of indoor socializing in order to counteract the misleading feedback you’re likely to receive if you have friends over for dinner.

Social disapprobation can help too. Most people don’t litter, because they fear the judgment of their neighbors. Eventually, inviting someone to dinner in the midst of a pandemic surge may elicit similar disgust.

Social conventions change. Young people are much more likely than their elders to sneeze into their elbows. Eventually, they may also be more adept at graciously refusing to shake an outstretched hand.

But while these adaptations are slow and imperfect, the logic of contagion and exponential growth is rapid and ruthless. So those of us who want to minimize the number of our compatriots who will die before deliverance arrives in the form of a vaccine need to take responsibility for our own actions. We all should do what we can to identify the biases from which we suffer—and try to stop them from influencing our behavior.