Commentary: What is a ‘very good job’ on coronavirus deaths?

By Cass R. Sunstein

Bloomberg Opinion

How many Americans are going to die from the coronavirus? How will we know if the national government or the states have done a commendable job or a terrible one?

Here’s a comment from President Donald Trump in late March:

So you’re talking about 2.2 million deaths, 2.2 million people from this. And so if we could hold that down, as we’re saying, to 100,000. It’s a horrible number, maybe even less — but to 100,000. So we have between 100 and 200,000, and we altogether have done a very good job.

Do you see what Trump did there? It’s called “anchoring,” and it’s one of the most important findings in behavioral science.

People who have been involved in real estate, like Trump, are often experts in the use of anchors. Trump specified an anchor (2.2 million deaths), and he used it to support his claim that if 100,000 to 200,000 Americans end up dying, he has “done a very good job.”

Whenever the goal is to affect people’s evaluations, it’s smart to get a particular number in their heads, whether it involves pricing property or estimating deaths. That number often sticks. It influences their judgments about what’s likely or what’s fair, and about what counts as a successful outcome or instead a disaster.

Here’s an example from law. Suppose you are a lawyer, and some defective product (say, an exercise machine) malfunctioned and seriously hurt your client. Suppose that you’re suing the manufacturer not only for medical bills, but also for “pain and suffering.”

To capture that harm, it’s tough for a jury (or for that matter a judge) to come up with a specific monetary figure. But if you can get a large number in their minds — say, $900 million in annual sales, or $300 million in annual profits — you can influence judgments in your client’s favor. Jurors might even think: “They earn $300 million a year. Let’s give just 1% of that: $3 million!”

In a catchphrase, “The more you ask for, the more you get.” That’s a tribute to the power of anchoring.

To be sure, some requests, and some numbers, are not even a little bit credible, and it’s important not to discredit yourself. But when it’s hard for people to generate a number, they tend to grab onto whatever anchor they find.

In real estate, many people know that if you can inform prospective purchasers that a similar building four blocks away sold for some astronomical amount, you might well be able to inflate the amount they are willing to pay. Indeed, higher starting prices produce higher selling prices. Anchoring works.

What if people have a clear sense of what the right number is, or of what is outside of a reasonable range? If you ask Americans how many states are in the union, they won’t say 5 or 200, even if you do your best to anchor them using those numbers. But for many questions, people respond with something like a stab in the dark, and if someone gives them an anchor, they’ll use it.

Which brings us back to COVID-19. To say the least, it’s not simple to know whether a specific number of deaths is a success or a failure.

If the anchor is 2.2 million deaths from the coronavirus — if that’s what could have happened — then 200,000 might look like a spectacular achievement. After all, two million deaths have been prevented.

If the anchor is 56,000 — the approximate number of Americans who die from the flu each year — then that same 200,000 figure looks really bad.

And if the anchor is lower than 56,000 — perhaps the number if the U.S. government had responded promptly and aggressively — then 100,000 deaths is a catastrophic failure.

The lesson is simple. Don’t be fooled by anchors.

To evaluate Trump’s performance, and that of the U.S. government, we have to ask what, exactly, was done, and what might have been done differently. And if we do that, it’s a pretty good bet that if the United States ends up with over 100,000 deaths, national officials did not do “a very good job.”

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “The Cost-Benefit Revolution” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”