Making good choices requires skill at calculating likelihoods and risks. If a potentially bad outcome has a very small chance of occurring, then striving to avoid that outcome may not be worth it. If a potentially good outcome has a significant chance of occurring, then striving for that outcome is a good idea.
So many important decisions require calculations of probability. But Americans, like most people, are pretty lousy at math and statistics. We forecast the future poorly and, therefore, make poor choices, even when the stakes are high.
Why is this, and how can we do better?
Calculating risk isn’t natural. The human brain is designed for efficiency. Our brains are designed to take mental shortcuts that free us from spending unnecessary energy on our decisions. They make simple choices (like should I have coffee this morning?) easier to make.
But they also keep us from slowing our thinking down when we need to, especially when we need to calculate risks and likelihoods. Thinking quickly is important in many circumstances, like when someone cuts you off on the freeway. But when it comes to making important choices, quick thinking is not our friend.
To effectively evaluate risks and likelihoods, we first need to give ourselves time. One way is to approach each decision by asking “How much time do I really have to make this choice?” If we realize we have a few days rather than a few minutes, we trigger ourselves into thinking more carefully.
For example, we don’t want to wait one year before deciding to get vaccinated against COVID. Summer is coming, and we want to enjoy it, not spend it worrying about a loved one in the hospital. But we don’t need to rush to judgment, either. We have at least a little time to “do the math”.
But math is not fun. Many find the subject of statistics difficult. Despite how important it is to calculate risks and likelihoods, math and statistics aren’t taught to Americans in a way that resonates—nor in a way that’s directly relevant. Learning statistics and math is not enjoyable for many Americans. Numbers aren’t memorable or interesting; stories are.
Whatever stories we associate with math or statistics problems aren’t particularly captivating. Word problems don’t seem relevant in the context of our own lives and when it comes to probability, unless you’re a professional gambler, it is not common to predict the outcome of a dice roll.
Getting better at math and statistics could come about by learning these subjects through the lens of everyday decision-making. Which car to buy, who to vote for, or whether to get a divorce are all decisions that Americans make daily, yet very few of these decisions are made with a rational evaluation of likelihoods and risks. The more we see the connection between “doing the math” and making better life decisions, the more inclined we are to learn. Abstract concepts don’t get us as far.
Calculating risk is essential. Risk assessment is critical in determining how to manage COVID. Medical experts, like Dr. Anthony Fauci, base their recommendations on calculations of probability and risk. They employ laws of probability to arrive at their conclusions.
Regretfully, because calculating probabilities don’t come naturally to us, and because they seem irrelevant to our everyday lives, many of us fail to appreciate their value.
Meanwhile, advocates of vaccine hesitancy and opponents of masking and social distancing don’t offer statistics-based likelihood estimates to support their positions. They rely on stories, experiences, and ideology, which are easier to process, but hardly as accurate.
To make good decisions—whether about the pandemic or anything else in our lives—we should offer statistics a lot more respect. Whether or not we are proficient in numbers, if we don’t show them deference, we may be making choices against our best interests, counter to our desires and our wellness.
In other words, pay attention to the numbers, or you may not end up where you want to be.