How risky is that virus? Your mind may mislead

As Ropeik put it, in the face of a new and poorly understood threat “we start feeling like we don’t know what we need to do to protect ourselves, and that feels like powerlessness, a lack of control, like driving down the road but with your eyes closed.”

Meanwhile, the information people get from the news and social media is “not particularly reassuring,” Slovic said. “The geographic risk of this seems to be rapidly expanding” and within any country the case numbers start relatively small and then grow, without any known upper bound, he said. And reports focus on people getting sick and dying, not those who’ve become infected and had only mild symptoms, he said. “We’re getting only the scary information.”

What’s more, Ropeik said, “everybody is telling everybody about it” in news and social media, which amplifies the perceived risk.