Carnegie Mellon University
April 24, 2020

Can the public be trusted in a pandemic?

It's easy to be cynical in the midst of a crisis, but your fellow humans might surprise you. As EPP's Baruch Fischhoff sees it, humans are more level-headed than the breathless news reports and social media posts about “covidiots” would suggest.

Fischhoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine and former president of the Society for Risk Analysis was featured recently in a WIRED article about whether or not the public be trusted during the pandemic.

“I’m very reluctant to give up on people,” Fischhoff says. When presented with the right quantitative information in the right ways, the public can handle the math. He points to a meteorology study in 1980 as an example of this. Prior work had suggested that nonexperts had trouble understanding probabilities, yet in this case researchers found that people have little difficulty understanding the difference between, say, a 30 percent and a 75 percent chance of rain. “People can understand probabilities if it’s clear what they’re attached to,” Fischhoff says.

Fischhoff says that during this pandemic, it’s imperative that leaders “communicate information in the best way possible so as to expand the envelope of informed choice as far as possible." “If the communication is lousy, people can’t make good decisions. They don’t look like good decisionmakers because they haven’t been given half a chance.”

To read more about what researchers have to say about whether or not the public be trusted during the COIVD-19 pandemic, read the full article here.