Ineffective Response to COVID-19 and Risk Compensation

by Davidmanheim1 min read8th Mar 202023 comments



UPDATE: This post was written and reflects an earlier set of my beliefs. I have updated significantly in a number of ways since it was posted, based on both external events and research, and no longer endorse it.

Epistemic status: I have a mental model that I think separates my view of response activities from that of the majority of what I see on Lesswrong and associated places. If it is incorrect, I'd be happy to update, but I think this is an area I have considered more than most other posters. I want to write a short post explaining this to allow others to update, and seeing if someone has an argument that changes my mind.

Put simply, my claim is that bringing attention to likely ineffective personal methods for reducing risk is not net neutral with a large upside if they work, it is instead likely to be on net fairly harmful, albeit with a large upside if they work.


First, we have incredibly effective and vastly underutilized ways to prevent spread of COVID-19, namely handwashing and not touching your face. Given that, if I propose an intervention like making homemade masks from fabric which reduced handwashing compliance by 1% (perhaps due to distracting people or making them think handwashing is less critical,) it would need to be astonishingly effective to be net positive. And most such approaches being discussed are, as far as I can tell, nowhere near that level of effectiveness.

Second, most readers of Lesswrong and effective altruism blogs and facebook groups aren't hardcore rationalists, and even hardcore rationalists aren't immune to Akrasia. On top of that, people like Scott Alexander have huge readerships and sometimes link people to Lesswrong. Many people reading posts here aren't washing their hands enough as it is, and aren't going to rationally evaluate the relative effectiveness of handwashing versus other interventions.

Third, evidence exists that risk-compensation is a meaningful issue. Actions that make people feel safer usually lead to less attention paid to more annoying / more intrusive measures. (There is evidence, such as Vrolix's paper*, that risk compensation reduces the size of the positive impact, but does not make interventions net negative. This is conditioned on the impact being significant and positive, however, and seems not to apply to speculative interventions like those being proposed.

This is not an argument that we should not look into better options for response. It's an argument that we should be more careful in vetting them before encouraging people to do them just in case they work.

*) Vrolix, Klara (2006). "Behavioural Adaptation, Risk Compensation, Risk Homeostasis and Moral Hazard in Traffic Safety" )