Guess the deadliest animal on Earth. Sharks? Crocodiles? Lions?

Not even close. Globally, sharks kill about a half dozen people a year, lions roughly 100, and crocodiles 1,000 give or take. Meanwhile, humans are responsible for some 475,000 homicides a year.

Even with that, we’re a distant #2 on the deadliest animal list. Mosquitos, by far, are the world’s #1 killers, taking out 1-2 million people a year worldwide by spreading diseases such as malaria, dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya and lymphatic filariasis.

If you didn’t guess correctly, it’s not surprising. People aren’t always great at assessing and responding to actual dangers.

Coronavirus has triggered a mix of anxiety levels across populations. That’s often true when risks are fuzzy, or when we distort them through our fear lenses.

Anyone who has ever had to communicate messages regarding health and safety understands the challenge. To take action, people have to be convinced that 1) there’s a genuine threat, which 2) can affect them, and which 3) they can do something about. Even then, it’s not always enough to motivate.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is changing rapidly. Individuals, organizations and governments are offering a case study in how they react – and, in some cases, overreact and underreact.

It got me thinking about risk perception.

Many people don’t want to travel now. Some take excessive precautions. The other day, model Naomi Campbell posted photos on Instagram of the outfit she wore at the L.A. airport: full hazmat suit, green mask and pink surgical gloves.

But in normal times, consider our feelings about different modes of transport.

If you look at deaths per passenger mile, trains, subways and buses are risker than airplanes. So are ferries. And cars are way, way riskier. (Motorcycles are the worst risk.) Yet people with a fear of flying probably don’t think twice about their drive to the airport.

In Canada, car crashes kill about 2,000 people a year and injure another 165,000. The deaths are equivalent to a major plane crash every month. They don’t get the same headlines because the deaths happen one at a time. We fly and worry. And drive without batting an eye.

The way we feel about risk and probabilities, and our individual and collective fears, has a huge influence on our behaviours.

The unknown and a loss of control

What do we fear? Often, it’s the unknown. Which is why the new coronavirus can freak us out more than, say, the seasonal flu – which kills about 3,500 Canadians a year and hospitalizes more than 12,000.

We’re also soothed by perceived control, i.e. a feeling that we’re in charge of an outcome. It probably has a lot to do with why people tend to worry more about flying than driving, even though we’re hardly in total control of our fate on the road.

An article from Harvard Medical School noted many factors, besides familiarity and control, that affect our perception of danger. Here’s eight of them.

  1. Do we trust who’s providing the information? People tend to be more afraid when they don’t have faith in the officials telling is about a particular risk or the process used to evaluate it.
  2. Did we assume the risk? People worry less about risks they take on than about the risks imposed on them by others.
  3. What’s the scale? Events that kill or can kill a lot of people at once, or in a short period, frighten us more than things that kill over time (even if they kill as many or more people).
  4. How hyped is the danger? Media coverage can heighten awareness of risks, and feelings that we’re personally at risk.
  5. Is the threat tangible? Sometimes it’s hard to grasp or invisible. So people can become confused about the risk, more frightened, or less frightened. It all depends.
  6. Do we know about who is affected? “Victims who are publicly identified evoke a greater emotional reaction than those who remain nameless and faceless,” says Harvard.
  7. Does it hit home? We’re concerned with our own well-being. “Risks that affect people personally are more frightening than those that affect strangers.”
  8. Is the danger natural or human-made? Harvard’s example: worrying less about sun exposure than about a nuclear power accident.

When communicating about dangers, and trying to influence actions, it’s essential to understand the psychology of risk perception.

We’re often poor judges of what imperils us. Which leads to all sorts of skewed attitudes.

For instance, a survey from Chapman University in California showed that Americans are more afraid of sharks than of hate crimes. More afraid of hell and demons than of sexual assault by someone they know. More afraid of a volcanic eruption than of germs.

Fear can be contagious. What’s the cure? For the sake of making good choices – during COVID-19 and always – let’s hope that credible information and persuasive arguments are what go viral.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxmanconnect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, information, motivation, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, learning, etc.

March 11, 2020

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