Coronavirus: Understanding more, fearing less

Risk researcher Gerd Gigerenzer assesses the current situation

People & stories, 23.04.2020

Gerd Gigerenzer is Director of the Harding Centre for Risk Competence at the University of Potsdam in Berlin and scientific sponsor of the ERGO Risk Report. In an interview, the psychologist talks about Corona, about the correct understanding of numbers, the "comeback" of science and why society should remain on guard.

Professor Gerd Gigerenzer / © David Ausserhofer

Professor Gerd Gigerenzer / © David Ausserhofer

Professor Gigerenzer, you are a risk researcher. Many people have underestimated the risk posed by the coronavirus for a long time. Did we simply not want to acknowledge the danger, was it too far away or what were the reasons for this suppression?

I don't think "suppression" is the right word. At first there was a great deal of uncertainty. The risk posed by the coronavirus was not easy to assess for a long time.  The previous experiences with SARS, bird flu or Ebola, for example, were different. At that time, too, there was panic, but ultimately not with this high number of casualties.  

Meanwhile Corona dominates everyday life. How can each individual do the right thing now?

The "ERGO Risk Report" clearly shows that we need more risk competence. This includes a better understanding of figures to assess risks correctly and the emotional competence to bear uncertainty. According to the last report, Germans were particularly afraid of terrorism. In this country, it is more likely to be struck by lightning than to fall victim to a terrorist. We currently have two figures that scare us: the number of new infections and the number of corona deaths. But do we really understand these figures? Can we categorize them? Many people have a hard time doing so.  

Does everyone have to define for themselves the risk they are prepared to take, or can society help them?

Society - and science - can help a great deal here. This is certainly one of the positive consequences of this pandemic: science is making a comeback, so to speak, in the media. People are increasingly trying to orient themselves on the facts provided by science.

The calls for an even tougher shutdown and further easing of the situation are almost incompatible with each other. How do you assess the Situation?

We are in a relatively good position in Germany on an international level. But: We not only have to keep an eye on the fight against the spread of the virus, but also on the costs of this fight. This applies to health, for example. It is certainly not a good trend for people with heart problems to stop going to hospital because they are afraid of being infected with the coronavirus. We must not take other deadly risks out of fear of risk.

Do you believe that people can take something good for the future from this unusual today - and will do so?

I hope so. After all, the German President and Chancellor have repeatedly called for solidarity. A virtue that should already be a matter of course in non-corona times. But the crisis makes it clear that we can only be successful together. I also hope that people will learn to understand uncertainties better. Marie Curie, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize, once said "In life, you have nothing to fear, you just have to understand. Now is the time to understand more so that we fear less. And I observe that many people now deal more with facts and figures. This new form of thinking together makes me feel quite positive.

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