During our socially distant journey, we will uncover three hidden decision biases we display while navigating through COVID-19 pandemic.
Our habit to read the same news apps each day, our fondness to listen to well-told stories and our eagerness to play lotteries are all related to our reactions to the pandemic. How come? Before we jump into the details, let me set the scene.
We are facing huge uncertainty (if the word huge itself is huge enough), multiplied with fear, without any certain resolution to calm us. Throughout the lockdown period, you might feel severe mood swings, as if you’re riding an emotional roller coaster. Maybe you find yourself agonising over the future and have difficulty sleeping at night. Do I develop an anxiety disorder? Even the thought of it makes me anxious! Or maybe you might feel drained and hopeless while your to-do list items are piling up restlessly and you have no energy to be productive. Am I sliding into depression?
What you could do instead is to stop agonising and acknowledge that you’re absolutely not alone. These are normal feelings to some extent, as the definition of ‘normal’ is constantly evolving. Maybe I should also use the hyped and ubiquitous word, ‘the new normal’, which is coined I believe to respond to the human desire to ‘normalise’ the things around them.
There are several identifiable (though not necessarily reasonable) patterns of behaviours we might all display. As humans, we have developed mental shortcuts, referred to as ‘heuristics’ to reduce the complexity of our world and become efficient problem solvers. But this comes with a cost. They also lead to cognitive biases, defined as systematic errors in thinking and decision making.
Accordingly, these behaviours are often described as ‘irrational’, because people deviate from the predictions of the rational choice theory, which basically assumes that we are all rational and behave consistently based on our self-interest.
My amusement (and also passion) is to learn more about these ‘irrational behaviours’. However, considering the context of the pandemic, I refrain from describing the biases I will elaborate below as purely ‘irrational’. The reason is that taking an evolutionary perspective, we are faced with the fear of death (or mildly, fear of contagion). This fear is multiplied with obscure uncertainty, which is an adequate recipe to trigger the survival mode on. So, we become more conservative and protective of the health of ourselves and our loved ones.
As a result of this deeply evolved response, we might behave in ways where the rationality argument falls; but just consider the purpose these behaviours serve. If they protect us from potential contagion and are useful for survival, then they’re perfectly rational. Aren’t they?
Now, the thing is not to judge anyone but to uncover and make sense of the prevailing cognitive biases. During our socially distant journey, as promised, we may become aware of them, laugh at them, but also we should not forget to thank them.
Or, the reason why we seek information that confirms what we already believe in.
We tend to track down the confirming evidence which supports our pre-existing feelings and beliefs while ignoring or rejecting the counter-evidence. Once we form a view, it becomes way harder to change it than we might normally think. Ideas are sticky.
Nassim Taleb calls it ‘naive empiricism’ and states that it is always easy to find these confirming instances; the only thing we have to do is to look for them.
In early March, the coronavirus was a relatively exotic topic; lockdowns and travel ban discussions were up in the air and there were zero confirmed cases in several countries.
At that time, people who had forthcoming planned events (a wide range from travel plans to the weddings) tended to downplay the implications of the virus and looked at the favourable media reports. They might have gone through the news which compared the coronavirus to seasonal flu; listened to the speeches of politicians who called the new virus hoax, in addition to comparing the number of deaths from the virus to the people who died at the pools. You could have also heard these people said: ‘Hey, coronavirus will vanish by the summer because of the warm weather!’
The reason is that they had already invested in their holidays, both financially and mentally, so they just wanted to go with their planned arrangements. It’s likely that you had such a friend, who you could not oppose with by showing counter views because he or she simply didn’t pay attention.
Likewise, people, who are super vigilant for their health, devoured each piece of data that warns against the increasing death toll and the fatality rate, accused the governments of being irresponsible and advised immediate harsh measures.
‘Confirmation bias comes from when you have an interpretation, and you adopt it, and then, top-down, you force everything to fit that interpretation,’ Kahneman says.
In short, we tend to believe what we want to believe.
Or, the reason why we are addicted to stories, instead of raw truths.
Since our childhood, we love being told stories. Everyone has a memory of a Disney film, which deeply affected them when little. By the time we grow, maybe we shift from Disney to Netflix; but the preference for stories remains intact. As a matter of fact, it pervades far-reaching aspects of our daily life, mostly unconsciously.
Taleb explains that we are vulnerable to over-interpretation and we have limited ability to look at the facts without coming up with an explanation. He calls the phenomenon ‘narrative fallacy’ and points out that the explanations bind facts together and make them more memorable. As we have limited resources in terms of information storage and retrieval, we have a natural tendency to come up with rules to reduce the dimension.
In our case, numerous stories about the root cause of the coronavirus are circulating; believers of these conspiracy theories range from well-known politicians to school kids. Let’s break down two of such trendy theories.
One theory claims that the virus was engineered attentively in a lab in Wuhan because of China’s biowarfare programme. People point out the Wuhan bio lab because it’s very close to Wuhan seafood market, the suspected epicentre of the outbreak. However, it escaped the laboratory because of a lab accident.
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 3 in 10 Americans believe that the virus was made in a lab. Another theory advocates that Bill Gates unleashed the virus because he has an urge to depopulate the world. His Foundation will develop a vaccine, and through mass vaccination, he will implement a microchip ID because he wants to store our personal information and set up massive tracking mechanisms.
A media analytics company, Zignal Labs, reports that conspiracies that are linked to Bill Gates mentioned 1.2 million times on television or social media between February and April this year.
Even if you consider that only these two theories exist, there is no way that both can be true at the same time. But how compelling these narratives are! They not only satisfy our brain’s hunger for stories but also leave us with the illusion of understanding.
Our lives have shattered in a matter of weeks and we’re still trying to make sense of what’s going on around us. As a result of high uncertainty and pressure, coupled with our innate tendency for narratives, we breed a false sense of understanding. My point here is not to debunk all these narratives, but to point out our vulnerability to them.
In short, we prefer well-crafted stories instead of disconnected facts.
Or, the reason why we play lotteries.
Let’s be honest. We are not very good at dealing with abstract concepts, especially statistical information and probabilities. Consider the most trivial one: the weather forecast. What does a chance of 50% rain actually mean? Some people say there’s a 50% chance it will rain. Others think that it will rain half of the time; whereas the rest believes that it will rain only half of the given location.
Making sense of ‘probabilities’ is more troublesome than we might initially think. And I’m not even talking about the line of research which uncovers how poorly we estimate the likelihood of given events. So, we (unconsciously) turn to heuristics to deal with probabilities.
Kahneman defines the availability heuristic as the tendency to assess the frequency of events or relative importance based on the ease of retrieval from memory. If an instance easily comes to mind – if it’s more available – you think that it’s more probable. In other words, we tend to overestimate the probability of an event or give more weight, if the relevant information is easily accessible.
What are the things that are more available? Salient or recent events that attract your attention, personal experiences, or also vivid examples that take vast media coverage; the things that pop up in your feed no matter how much you scroll down. Along with that, fearsome thoughts and images are very memorable, because they create emotional intensity: the more we fear, the better we keep relevant information for future instances and make it easy to retrieve.
One of the most powerful – and wicked – tools that engage our emotions is an anecdote, which is low in statistical significance but disproportionately high in emotional significance. As anecdotes convey sensational information through a story, they are strikingly memorable.
Turn to the coronavirus in this light. In early January, there were a few news articles about a new virus that emerged in a city in China. Then, the number of articles started to rise slowly with more detail: the virus caused the whole city to lockdown. I clearly remember I learned about the virus not from any media resource, but on the phone talking to a (dear) friend.
Then, we all know the rest of the story. The outbreak started picking up in other countries, one by one. Simultaneously, media coverage of the events overspread, even faster than the virus itself.
We have seen war scene like photos, captured at Italy’s hospitals. We have read articles about how people were – and still are – dying because of the virus with no cure. We have listened to the speeches of politicians who advise us to stay home and maintain social distance. We were – and still are – bombarded with information. It is everywhere.
On top of that, if you have a friend, a friend’s friend who is diagnosed with the coronavirus, you get the chance to listen to their stories from first-hand. They might tell you that they don’t know how they caught the virus, because they only went to the supermarket once, or they might admit how scared they feel. You are swayed by the anecdotal evidence you just heard.
That’s when our perception of risk is distorted by our emotional reactions.
One of the most commonly employed examples to describe the availability heuristic is how the disaster of 9/11 prompted people to overestimate the number of casualties from terror attacks relative to other causes of death. The public response was to favour driving over flying, which resulted in a significant increase in the number of highway accidents.
However, please note the enormous difference in the true nature of risks. Simply, my driving on the highway has a very indirect effect on your health. However, nowadays, if I go outside recklessly without a mask and infect people around you, it has severe implications on you. The risk is cumulative. We’re not independent players in this game; we depend on each other. It’s that simple.
Psychologists indicate that people cannot assess probabilities objectively and they are inclined to overestimate. Statistical information, such as fatality rate or infection rate, is slowly waning. All things aside, in this particular case, I believe it’s a valuable asset.
In short, we are guided by sensational anecdotes, more than bare statistics.
Or, what are the key takeaways?
We have come a long way and got to know just three of our many hidden reactions to the pandemic. Today it’s COVID-19, tomorrow it could be named anything, but the underlying psychological mechanisms would be similar.
And here is my mini-resolution list:
- Be aware of the confirmation bias
- Fight with the narrative fallacy
- Show appreciation to the availability heuristic
In a world where uncertainty mounts, we are trying to find our own ways. These are hard times. There is no doubt in that. This is where heuristics and mental short cuts come into play. Some of them hinder our ability to see the world clearly, whereas some provide us with a survival advantage.
Making sense of our own actions and the ones around us by answering the question ‘why do we behave the way we behave during the pandemic’ has a true potential to help. Be aware. Stay healthy.
Image credit: Freepik
Melis Ozoner holds a double major in psychology and industrial engineering from Koc University, Turkey. She writes about a range of topics on behavioural sciences.