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Marshall Allen

Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

It was mid-February and Maria Konnikova — a psychologist, writer and champion poker player — was on a multicity trip. From her hotel room in New Orleans, she called her sister, a doctor, to discuss the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Konnikova saw there were early cases in Los Angeles, where she was headed for a poker tournament.

The odds of Konnikova getting infected or spreading the virus by participating in a large indoor event were unknown. But as a poker player she had a lot of experience thinking through the probable risks associated with different decisions. So she played it conservatively. She cut short her trip and went home to quarantine in New York.

Konnikova's psychology expertise tells her that most people have a hard time thinking through the uncertainty and probabilities posed by the pandemic. People tend to learn through experience, and we've never lived through anything like COVID-19. Every day, people face unpleasant and uncertain risks associated with their behavior, and that ambiguity goes against how we tend to think. "The brain likes certainty," she said. "The brain likes black and white. It wants clear answers and wants clear cause and effect. It doesn't like living in a world of ambiguities and gray zones."

Many months into the pandemic, even as the nation faces its highest average daily case counts to date, people still don't agree on how to live in the era of COVID-19. We know how to protect ourselves — washing our hands, wearing masks and staying socially distant — but many people still take unnecessary risks, even at the highest levels of government.

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