Daniel Kahneman, COVID-19 and the cascade of fear

Kahneman provides us a perfect explanation of what we are witnessing today and how low-risk scenarios cascade into oversized ones.

Israeli police officers on patrol at Machane Yehuda outdoor market in Jerusalem during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Oct. 13, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Israeli police officers on patrol at Machane Yehuda outdoor market in Jerusalem during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Oct. 13, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.
Dennis Mitzner

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, published in 2011, Tel Aviv-born winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics Daniel Kahneman examines the dichotomy between two modes of thought: System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional, System 2 is slower, more deliberative and more logical.

One of the book’s chapters, “The science of availability,” discusses something called an “availability cascade,” a concept first developed by Timor Kuran and Cass Sunstein.

“Sunstein came to believe that biased reactions to risks are an important source of erratic and misplaced priorities in public policy. Lawmakers and regulators may be overly responsive to the irrational concerns of citizens, both because of political sensitivity and because they are prone to the same cognitive biases as other citizens,” writes Kahneman.

Kahneman expands on the theory and by doing so provides us a perfect explanation of what we are witnessing today, with low-risk scenarios cascading into oversized ones:

“An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs,’ individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news.

“The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile; anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a ‘heinous cover-up.’ The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.”

When considering the low mortality rate of COVID-19, Kahneman’s words ring true around the world, with the media, unrepentant in its insatiable hunger for hysteria—and clicks—continuously drumming up a frenzy of panic porn. The loud noise of the screaming headlines is designed to keep other viewpoints out of the public forum. The media elites—such as David Horovitz of the Times of Israel, as seen below—willingly use religion-laden language to shame those seen as acting against a collective interest, and politicians and health officials openly stifle debate.

When applied to Israel, the protagonists in Kahneman’s analysis are easy to identify. The prime minister in legal trouble, the media apparatus hunting for clicks, the technocratic health officials drunk with power and misguided public adulation, a “health czar” who has now assumed the role of police commissioner—all perfectly in line with the characters that comprise Kahneman’s availability cascade.

In Israel, the availability cascade has not merely reset priorities, but has completely upended the prevailing order and tossed Israel into a cascade of fear with the government and public feeding off of each other’s hysteria, further escalating the situation.

The speed at which global governments have acted to quell the rise and spread of COVID-19 has overwhelmed many, to the extent of total mental paralysis. The ongoing reversal of civil liberties and individual rights should force us all to think clearly and to fully understand what we are witnessing.

Dennis Mitzner is a Tel Aviv-based writer and entrepreneur. Subscribe to his newsletter, follow him on Twitter at @DennisMitzner or connect with him on Linkedin.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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