(CNN)Will it be a royal house or full house or maybe four of a kind?
Maria Konnikova is used to thinking about risk tolerance. The author-turned-professional-poker-player learned how to assess what economic risks are worth taking as research for her recent bestseller, "The Biggest Bluff."
Assessing health risks — especially when you're risking not only your health but other people's — is a different ball game. As the United States continues reopening even as other countries are still in the grip of the pandemic, people are assessing risk tolerance all over again, navigating their emotions, their needs and the limits of their comfort zones.
CNN Wellness sptoke to Konnikova to find out how she deals with the cards she's dealt, and how we can, too. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: What is risk tolerance?
Maria Konnikova: Risk tolerance is how comfortable you are with making risk/reward calculations and whether you actually use the rational answer to (make) that calculation or not.
There are people who make the calculation and say, "You know what, even though I should take this risk, I'm not going to because of emotional or personal reasons." They're risk-averse. And there are people who determine that something is a bad idea but want to do something anyway for emotional, subjective reasons. They're risk-seeking.
And then there are the people who actually use the rational risk calculus. But they're few and far between. Most people think that they're being rational, but they're really being subjective and emotional.
CNN: Why is understanding risk tolerance important during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Konnikova: What we need to be focused on now is not as much personal risk tolerance as actually making more people into as rational actors as possible, as able to evaluate risk as possible. That's difficult because people are really, really bad at evaluating risks objectively.
CNN: How so?
Konnikova: We make certain risk judgments all the time in life, and not just in investing. What health decisions do you make? Do you smoke? Do you do drugs? How much do you drink? Do you go skydiving? Do you drive a motorcycle?
We're constantly evaluating risk in one form or another. We just aren't often aware of it. And we don't do so in a rational way. Most of our risk decisions are actually made in a quite emotional, subjective way, which is not necessarily great.
CNN: How did learning about risk tolerance in poker relate to the pandemic?
Konnikova: Some of the people whom I know who were the earliest to realize what was going on with Covid and how cautious we needed to be, in that we did need these lockdowns, were poker players who looked at the numbers and said, "Holy crap, this is going to be bad."
They immediately made those judgments because they understood how numbers work, how exponential growth works, how statistics work, how probabilities work.