The current coronavirus epidemic is a test of rationality in a number of ways. I see people doing “obviously wrong” things around me. Reasonably well-off people should be able to avoid getting the virus if they are sufficiently conscientious, update on new information quickly enough, and can afford to work from home or take time off of work if necessary.

The first two factors are within the reach of nearly everyone: conscientiousness is a matter of prioritizing it enough in your life, and enormous amounts of information is readily and freely available. The third (ability to not be in the workplace if needed) is, sadly, not equitably distributed — although, because the virus is enormously top-of-mind for everyone, now is a good time for even relatively low-job-security people to be pushing for changes in their workplace which would reduce risk for themselves, their families and their teams.

Things I see people doing wrong:

  • not being clear about their goals
  • overreacting and spreading unhelpful panic
  • underreacting, failing to take sufficient care of themselves and their families
  • indexing too heavily on “confirmed cases” — underrating invisible cases
  • indexing too heavily on government competence or incompetence
  • not modeling exponential growth accurately (too high or too low)
  • assuming the virus growth will be exponential at all
  • taking unhelpful attitudes (“we’re all gonna get it so there’s no point in doing anything”)
  • unhelpfully focusing on the political aspect of the issue (e.g. spending too much energy blaming Trump rather than focusing on things you can actually do)
  • being unable to clearheadedly consider worst-case scenarios because they’re too absurd or scary
  • being unable to clearheadedly talk about best-case scenarios (perhaps because of fears that over-optimism means people won’t take it seriously enough?)
  • talking about the state of affairs as-of too many days ago, when material updates have occurred in the meantime
  • ignoring how epidemics usually progress, saying “this time’s different”
  • ignoring the specifics of this case, over-indexing on how epidemics usually progress

As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle. There’s a right answer to this puzzle, and a right process that one should follow. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but:

  • Set a goal of not getting infected with the virus yourself while minimizing your own costs in doing so. I am pretty sure this goal is both individually and societally optimal for almost everyone reading this blog.
    • I see people setting other goals, such as “not dying from the virus”. But my goal of not getting it at all seems better! For example, even if you don’t die from the virus, getting it could be quite costly in other ways. You might spread it to your loved ones, or you could be disabled or permanently injured. Is it worth risking that to avoid taking some annoying precautions now?
    • Some people, like health care workers and family of infected loved ones, might be ok with another goal like “help people recover from the virus” even if this comes with the risk of getting infected yourself. If you accept such a goal (which is, to be clear, an admirable sacrifice on your part) then so be it, but know that you’re at high risk of spreading the virus to others and as such, it could easily be counterproductive for society — if you do, please be extra-careful to avoid spreading the virus.
  • Build models of yourself: learn your own habits and practice how to change your behaviors. Ask others for help in pointing out things you do that you might not be aware of.
  • Build models of how the virus spreads in the micro (droplets and fecal/oral route) and understand the few most plausible ways you in your daily life would pick up the virus. Prioritize and systematically eliminate or reduce those risks by changing your behavior and those of your housemates.
  • Build models of how the virus spreads through people — when do people show symptoms? When are they contagious? How quickly do you expect to learn about someone in your city or your community being sick?