The Political Expediency Of Mass Hysteria And Panic

storm weather lightning

The optimal level of risk is never zero. Otherwise, nobody would ever get up in the morning. But even staying in bed is risky (people die in their sleep). When you drive from home to work your risk of dying is nonzero.

When you fly from New York to Los Angeles your risk of dying is nonzero. When you cross a traffic-heavy street your risk of dying is nonzero. When you ride a bike your risk of dying is nonzero.

Why, then, do most of us act in these types of situations as if the risk were indeed zero? The answer is because it is sufficiently low, that for practical purposes we can act as if it were zero, although we know that theoretically, it’s not.

After all, people die in car crashes and as pedestrians every day, they also die, although much less often in plane accidents, and some of them (hundreds) even perish from being hit by lightning every year!

Seven people in the US die of bubonic plague annually!

Yet, we don’t get scared every day of going out because we might get hit by a car, or by lightning, or fall from a bike and die from a  concussion, or end up like 14th century Europeans, decimated by plague. In most everyday situations individuals are good at managing the risk level of their own behavior.

However, it is much more interesting to study what happens when the risk is unclear, when the information about relevant circumstances affecting the risk level is highly uncertain and incomplete, or at least more complicated to assess. In these situations, human society, especially when politics gets involved – and this politics is a democratic one – tends, as if almost by rule, to make horrible and self-destructive decisions, all of which create and perpetuate irrational panic and excessive risk aversion.

People act excessively scared and do many stupid and irrational things to alleviate the unnecessary fear that they feel. There are multiple psychological and political mechanisms that create this dynamic that could be described as “the political economy of hysteria and panic.”

It involves psychological mechanisms of availability bias, action bias, broken window illusion, as well as the widespread ethical view of pathological altruism and political dynamics of democratic shortsightedness.

All these factors often conspire together in a sinister fashion to create a hysterical and irrational frame of mind towards risk, leading to wildly irrational decisions.

Let’s start with availability bias.

You are probably familiar with opinion polls reporting that climate is changing faster than any time in history, and that natural disasters are getting bigger and more frequent; that we have more hurricanes, droughts, floods, earthquakes.

You might be one of the people who believe this yourself. Yet, it is not true. All reports compiled by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other scientific organizations show that most natural disasters are not getting worse, and some are getting less severe.

Why then do all too many people believe the very opposite? The answer is that the media is obsessively pushing the stories about disasters every day.

In the age of satellite television and the internet, there is no global disaster or catastrophe that is not immediately made visible to anyone with access to modern technology – hurricane, earthquake, forest fire – everything is immediately broadcasted and always accompanied by dramatic, often catastrophic messages of gloom and doom.

One hundred years ago a big hurricane in Florida would be in the news on page 2 or 3 of the New York Times and that would have been it. People in the directly affected region would suffer and think about it, the rest of the country and the world would just continue with their lives as if nothing had happened.

Today, when a big hurricane threatens Florida, first, five days in advance meteorologists on TV are following its strengthening, changes in its path, categorizations (category 5, be scared, be very scared), all followed with the scary (satellite!) images of the eye of the storm, doing their best to scare the daylights out of everybody.

You cannot turn on the TV or even social networks without being bombarded with fearmongering about the hurricane. Governors and local mayors would be evacuating everybody for days before the hurricane strikes to the delight of the media, further fueling the panic.

There would be little else the media would talk about for a week. When the storm finally hits, Chris Cuomo of CNN would stand in the rain to demonstrate how tough he is and also how frightening the storm is.

The same applies in different degrees to every other disaster in every other country: it becomes major news instantly and stays such for a long time.

It should not shock you then that most people would think that disasters like hurricanes are much more prevalent than they are and that they are getting worse.

It’s a known cognitive illusion everyone is susceptible to, to consider things directly visible and observable to be more prevalent and in a sense more real than those you see less often. […]


The situations of collective insanity characterized by mass hysteria and panic are almost impossible to handle reasonably in a democratic society.

A positive feedback loop between media “reporting” on disasters, real or imagined, the sense of dread, panic, and urge to do something by the public, and the response of the politicians to satisfy this collective demand for ritual action make calm and rational handling of the situation all but impossible.

The demand for action creates the pressure to avoid being perceived as weak and indecisive on the part of politicians, while the information asymmetry between the visible, concentrated, and identifiable benefits of “action” and delayed, speculative and more distributed costs of action make irrational and ineffective but ritualistic policies much more likely. Policies adopted to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic illustrate very painfully these truths.

h/t GWPF

Read rest at AIER

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