When Caution Becomes Paranoia

The Coronavirus scare is saturating the media lately, and with good reason. But, what you may not know is the invisible force that may be turning caution into paranoia.

Back in 1981, Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman conducted a study that is eerily similar to the Coronavirus we’re watching unfold today. They asked people to imagine that the United States was preparing for an outbreak of an unusual Asian disease that was expected to kill 600 citizens. People could choose between two options: a treatment that would ensure 200 people would be saved or one that had a 33 percent chance of saving all 600 but a 67 percent chance of saving none. Seventy-two percent chose the former.

But simply framing the question differently produced very different results.  When they presented the first option as only 400 people would die and the second option as a 33% chance that no one would die and a 67 percent chance that all 600 would die, 78% favored the second option. The choices are mathematically identical, so what’s going on?

Because of an unconscious bias called loss aversion, we tend to accept more risks to try to avoid a loss than get a gain. The loss aversion is a reflection of a general bias in human psychology (also called status quo bias) that make people resistant to change. So when we think about change we focus more on what we might lose rather than on what we might get.

When does cautionary behavior turn into irrational paranoia? When loss aversion and fear hijack logic.  And it happens more than we’d like to think!


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

DO YOU HAVE THE "WRITE" STUFF? If you’re ready to share your wisdom of experience, we’re ready to share it with our massive global audience – by giving you the opportunity to become a published Contributor on our award-winning Site with (your own byline). And who knows? – it may be your first step in discovering your “hidden Hemmingway”. LEARN MORE HERE


  1. Oh my goodness do we see this playing out! And this was playing out long before the virus hit. It plays out in our elections, in our news cycles… This is one of the many, many, many, many reasons I love your work, Melissa. Your work is the only way I can make sense of all the things that make no sense!

  2. “So when we think about change we focus more on what we might lose rather than on what we might get.”

    And as evidence of that, let’s use that sentence as a lens through which to look at a few of our nagging, paralyzing, polarizing social debates:
    • gun violence / control
    • climate change
    • universal healthcare (of some kind)
    • the electoral college
    • LGBQ rights
    • immigration reform
    In each case, the forces of opposition – whether overtly or covertly – are focused on what could be lost rather than what could be gained.

  3. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Mac. I love the way you frame, “Where’s the tiger?” It’s a great to way to think about how irrational fears grow into seemingly real monsters. Unconscious biases are unavoidable, but we have much more control than we once thought. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!

  4. Thanks, Melissa.

    Our brains are programmed with lots and lots of fear stuff. Though we were hunters and gatherers for basically, well, ever, we were also prey animals, right? So that shadow sends us a message: Whatever I’m doing may be crappy, but the alternative could be worse (death), so why take a chance? So we stay in toxic jobs, soul-stupifying relationships, and so on, because our brain forecasts the wreckage of the future quite nicely, thank you.

    The trick I learned is, when that nibbling fear begins, to ask “Where’s the tiger?” And, of course, most of the time, the tiger’s made up.

    Like learning to use our non-dominant hand, learning to use our non-dominant thinking can become part of our program.

    Good to meet you.