AMERICANS ARE FREAKING out way too much over the coronavirus pandemic, passing around unfounded rumors and hoarding toilet paper. Also, they’re not taking it seriously enough and are putting themselves and others at risk through reckless behavior.

Both reactions stem from the same emotion – fear – and the brain chemistry of human beings faced with a new danger they don’t fully understand and worry may never be under control, experts say.

The psychology of risk perception is not about the actual risk, but “how we feel about the risk,” says David Ropeik, a retired Harvard instructor in risk communication and the psychology of risk perception. “There are feelings factors that heighten our fear of any risk when we have massive uncertainty,” as the world now faces with coronavirus, he adds. “When you’re not certain, you have a terrible feeling of not knowing. There’s a powerlessness, a vulnerability.”

In this case, the uncertainty exacerbates the fear of getting gravely ill, overwhelming individuals’ “risk radar-screens,” says Ropeik, author of the book “How Risky Is It, Really?: Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.” “Subconsciously, that overwhelms our ability to be reasonable about the statistics,” which can lead people to both panic and be far too dismissive of the real threat, he says.

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