Our perception of risk appears to be affected by prevailing social narratives, which can affirm and magnify our existing biases. What we hear from immediate contact such as friends and family, and even service providers like the shop owner we speak to, can have a profound effect on our ability to objectively evaluate risk.

The risk of assessing a new vaccine, like with all vaccines, can be objectively conceptualised as - the likelihood and severity of side-effects, versus the likelihood and severity of catching the disease the vaccine protects against. We may also consider the impact on wider society, given the herd immunity function of vaccines. We can also evaluate the risks of a particular vaccine against what we already know about the risks of similar vaccines in the past, as well as risks of other life activities like driving and being struck by lightning.

My interesting observation around the COVID vaccines is how easily many people are swayed by subjective, reactive, and fear-mongering social narratives. The comments of one (usually non-medical non-science) doubter can negate the consensus voices of the majority of health care experts and researchers around the world, who have dedicated countless hours and lifetime to the study and creation of vaccines. We forget that all medical interventions and vaccines come with risks. We forget that a plane can fall out of the sky and kill us in our homes. Or the significantly higher likelihood of being killed on the road.

Another interesting observation is that once some people are made away of this biased and socially-influenced evaluation of risk, they resort to even less rational thoughts to justify such biases. Cue conspiracy theories here.

The net result of such subjective risk assessment is that fewer people are getting vaccinated. Which then gives the virus more opportunity to kill people and mutate to even more virulent variants. And that benefits nobody.

Such narratives in smaller groups like organisations can also negatively impact the ability of their members to think rationally and consider risks objectively.

It would seem prudent to work hard to evaluate risk objectively, to avoid unfounded fear that can lead to irrational, suboptimal, or dangerous decisions.

What social narratives are we being subjected to at any one time? How are these colouring our perception of risks? How much fear are they engendering? And how much of this fear is actually unfounded?