Why some people might lock their doors but are reluctant to wear a mask.. and vice versa

Actuary out of the Box
6 min readMay 10, 2021

Don`t know much about a science book

If there`s one thing that COVID-19 has clarified.. it`s that most people don`t understand probability theory. What do you think sells more? Lottery tickets or Life Insurance policies? Would you believe that an experienced, well trained life insurance agent sells `on average` 32 individual life insurance policies… per year. Yep, a a game of chance that offers really long odds beats hands down an insurance service whose pay-out is a sure thing.

I need to make a confession, I belong to a group of individuals called `the no lock people` (NY Times) . This basically means that I don`t lock the doors of my apartment or my car. Dan Ariely, professor of Behavioral Economics has a theory about this…

A percent of people will always be honest and never steal,” the locksmith said. “Another percent will always be dishonest and always try to pick your lock and steal your television. And the rest will be honest as long as the conditions are right — but if they are tempted enough, they’ll be dishonest too. Locks won’t protect you from the thieves, who can get in your house if they really want to. They will only protect you from the mostly honest people who might be tempted to try your door if it had no lock… (his book) The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves

Whilst I might belong to the`no lock people` group, I adopted this keyless practice as a result of simple probability. Since I am a scatter brain apt to misplace personal items, I concluded that the probability of my apartment being burgled is much lower than the probability of losing my keys.

As a holder of a degree in Actuarial Science from the University of London, City I had to study a lot of probability theory and hence I have adopted several other unusual statistical habits.. such as:

When travelling, I always choose a hotel room that`s no higher than the 8th; modern fire engines don`t have ladders that reach higher floors.

I always order the same meal from the same restaurant. The objective is to reduce the risk of having a bad meal… and given that my own culinary skills are abysmal, eating out is my own option to long-term survival. My theory is that to find an amazing dish on a menu is quite hard, finding two in the same restaurant is akin to winning the Triple Crown. So once I`ve found my favorite dish, I stick to it. This quirky habit leads to lots of astonished looks from fellow diners, when I quietly seat myself at the table of a particular establishment. Without saying a single word, glasses of wine and dishes are served without me having to say a single word to the waiting staff. Mind you I do order many different dishes from a wide variety of eateries.

These three idiocyncrancies regarding keys, hotels and dining allow follow my `golden risk management rule`; they don’t cost me anything, offer lots of upside with no material downside. Ok, I might get robbed but I`ll definitely lose my keys; so this is still a net gain from my point of view.

I read the news today, oh boy

Over the last 18 months, I have been struck by the baseless divide between the mask and the maskless and alas I fear that the news media has no small part to play in the politicization of this health issue. Here`s my take on the 24/7 cable news coverage which seeks to pit the villain against the do-gooder super-hero…

In the blue corner, Sugar Ray Liberal has decided that the CDC`s guidelines descended from Mount Sinai. In the red corner, Golden Boy MA-GGG-A has decided that COVID-19 is a little flu.. Let`s get ready to rumble….

I would classify the news into 2 categories, namely 1) Fake and 2) Well intentioned but still evolving due to uncertainly. However it would be anathema for politicians, journalists and scientists to suggest that a great deal of uncertainty still exists. There must be no chink in Sugar Ray Liberal`s amour to assure absolute victory over the Philistines.

Risky business

In Tali Sharot`s book `The optimism bias` she theorizes that the evolution process has led to the survival of the most optimistic. One of her exercises challenges the reader to imagine the following. You are given a birthday present of an all expenses paid `tandem parachute jump`. Now there are two scenarios

1) Surprise! The plane is just outside and you are going to be jumping in the next hour.

2) The jump will take place exactly 1 week from now.

Assuming that you are an average risk taker, the surprise gift is going to strip you of all optimistic thoughts and strike you with terror. In the second scenario, whilst you might still be weak-kneed for the next seven days, undertaking careful research about the weather forecast, reviews about the jump-school and learning that parachuting accidents are `remote`, might assist in formulating a rudimentary risk management model putting this event into perspective. The conclusion is likely to give you cause to be somewhat optimistic that you will see another birthday cake.

The devastating tsunamis of COVID-19 cases, consequent deaths across specific regions and along very different time-lines unequivocally confirm that we still lack the ability to project COVID-19 incidences and it`s definitely not a `little flu`. Italy, New York, Manaus and India`s unpredictable spikes may have grabbed the world`s headlines but which model could have predicted that Laos, Nepal, Thailand and Trinidad & Tobago would suffer proportionally higher surges. Even in the complete absence of a semi-reliable predictive COVID-19 model (as per our skydiving colleague), several developing countries have suddenly acquired intuitive insight and are now optimistic that they are already in the clear; as such are already letting their guard down.

The most succinct advice I received at the very beginning of the pandemic was from fellow actuary, Ravi Tewari FIA, CEO of Guardian Group. He suggested that there might be four possible outcomes;

1) We all die quickly

2) We all die slowly

3) A vaccine will eventually control it

4) We learn to live with it

He clarified that the first two were obviously not true. Vaccines are our best chance but their slow roll-out will require us to adapt to learning to adopt new normal lifestyle protocols.

Factfullness Conclusion

In summary:

· For the risk-averse, key-carrying folk, please be aware that the probability of your unlocked house/car being burgled is much lower than contracting covid-19 if you don`t wear a mask and attend crowded events. Duh!

· Developing countries health care facilities are less robust, will be overstretched a lot faster; this suggests that higher prevention measures need to be taken in emerging markets,

· You should monitor the progress of vaccinations in your region: 70% is the assumed target of the adult population that`s needed to start controlling the spread,

· The vaccinated are not in the clear

The vaccines are not 100% effective

The vaccines were designed before the emergence of new variants & mutations

Only a handful of countries have vaccinated over 70% of their adult population

The rate of transmission is going to reduce but since there is no cure, cases and deaths will correspondingly fall but will not disappear

What is and is not credible

· Not credible: advice from government agencies which lack rudimentary projection models that cannot explain what causes `super spreader` events and can`t forecast the next waves, variants and mutations (their guidelines are like money spent on advertising, 50% is ineffective, but no one knows which half)

· Credible: the low-tech that got us through the 1918 Spanish Flu (masks, social distancing, hand washing)

The low tech solution includes my favorite statistical golden rule… clear upside (long and healthy life with clean fingernails) versus no discernable downside. My apartment remains unlocked but my habits have evolved to include reducing daily contact with strangers by 70% , wearing two masks, a visor and latex gloves. Only the paranoid survive…(Andrew Grove, Intel)

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