That introduces biases into the mix, which can sway people’s perceptions. With social media, for example, information can be passed around rapidly, but so can misinformation.

“We tend to tailor it so that we only watch the stuff that tells us what we want to believe or things along our own ideological biases,” Slovic said. “This all leads to tremendous polarization.”

Even without biases, pandemics can be particularly difficult to comprehend because they operate on the principle of exponential growth. In other words, outbreaks can escalate quickly. A location with one infection could see hundreds after a week, multiplying into the thousands not long after.

“The way the virus spreads, everything is under control until it isn’t — that’s the nature of exponential growth,” Slovic said. “Our minds think linearly, at a constant rate of growth, but this is a nonlinear process. It’s a natural tendency for most of us to underestimate the speed at which an exponential process will take off, and then suddenly it overwhelms us.”