How Psychological Biases Shaped My Response to This Pandemic

Did your biases lead you to under or overreact to COVID-19?

Posted Mar 15, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

If you’re like me, life changed quickly over the past few weeks. The novel coronavirus was already in my county two weeks ago when I took a cross-country trip to a conference with 4,000 other people. Canceling the conference had not even been a consideration and the virus was barely discussed while I was there. Two weeks later, my daughter’s school is closed for at least a month and my husband and I are debating whether or not to go to venture out to the grocery store (luckily, we’re already well-stocked on toilet paper).

I find myself in a state of confusion. How did things change so quickly? How did my own reaction change so much in a number of days? Why didn’t I understand how serious the situation was? And is the situation as serious as everyone says it is?

At this point, I’ve looked at enough graphs to understand the idea of flattening the curve (or cattening the curve, if you need some levity). I see how rapidly the number of official cases is rising and spreading to new areas. I recognize that these tested cases represent just a fraction of the real number of cases. And I get that by limiting my contact with others I am slowing the spread of infection so that hospitals and medical staff don’t get overwhelmed by serious cases. I have spent enough days with this knowledge that I have adjusted my status quo and now expect to not interact with anyone outside my husband and daughter unless it is essential.

And yet, I still haven’t completely wrapped my mind around the situation. I understand that we are in unprecedented territory. Never in my 36 years have I experienced anything like this. There is no traffic in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I have not yet done the panic-buying. Standing in line with thousands of other people to get supplies at Costco seems like the opposite of social distancing. But I keep asking myself if I am still missing something—should I be panic-buying? I don’t think the virus is likely to knock out so many people that we can’t produce food. But if whole countries are shutting down, then maybe there won’t be the same supplies there were before. In two weeks, am I going to look back on today and think I was so naïve to believe that there would still be food on the shelves when I needed it?

If you are having any of the same uncertainty and confusion that I am having, know you are not alone. We are dealing with a lot of uncertainty, and humans don’t tend to do well with that. This is a new situation, and most of us don’t have a good mental schema in place to deal with it. What we have instead are psychological biases that can make it hard to know whether we are responding appropriately to the situation. If you’re feeling confused, below is an explanation of some of the psychological biases that shaped my responses over the past month and likely shaped yours as well. Spoiler alert: Learning about these biases might help you better understand why you thought or acted in the way you did, but knowing about them won’t make them go away completely.

One of the most relevant psychological biases is called the normalcy bias. This bias refers to our tendency to expect that things will continue to occur in the future the way they have typically occurred in the past (to continue to be “normal”), which can lead us to underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster occurring and how bad the disaster is when it does occur. And apparently, I am among the 70 percent or so people thought to fall prey to this bias during a disaster . Even as I write about this bias, I can feel it playing in my mind. I feel myself thinking that yes, things are strange right now, but this is just temporary. It can’t really keep getting worse, right? I have to keep reminding myself that my daughter’s school is closed for a month because that is certainly not part of my normal life. The world’s reaction to the novel coronavirus has made it clear that this is not a normal situation, but I must remind myself of it constantly to fight against what, in my mind, feels like a brief blip in our typical way of doing things.

True disasters are rare, so having a strong sense that things will continue as normal tends to be harmless and can even be helpful—when we do see small deviations from normal, a bias towards normalcy might prevent us from overreacting. But some people do tend to overreact. At times, we might find ourselves susceptible to the worst-case scenario bias in which people magnify and overreact to small problems. This type of catastrophic thinking can also be disastrous—it leads people to fixate on the worst possible outcome in a situation, which can lead to unnecessarily extreme action and poor decision making. You may have experienced this when you could not reach a loved one on the phone after trying a few times, and quickly convinced yourself that something must be wrong. This type of thinking can result in reckless behavior, such as speeding to get to the person’s house. People who are more susceptible to worst case scenario bias are likely the ones who created the toilet paper shortage.

The problem with new situations, especially ones like the spread of COVID-19 that unfold over a matter of weeks rather than in an instant, is that it is hard to know which biases we are falling prey to—are the early doomsayers just overreacting? Or are those people who keep calm and carry on suffering from normalcy bias? We couldn’t know right away, we had to wait for more data to see which situation we were in. And I’ve heard people say that if we do a good job of mitigation, it will look like we overreacted. Unfortunately, because we have an outcome bias, being prepared for future disasters might be more strongly based on the outcome of this pandemic (which will hopefully look like an overreaction) than the decisions that were made during it.

Adding to the problem, at least for me, was that the people who were issuing early warnings around me were those who are more anxious. Anxious people both interpret ambiguous information in a more negative light (Mathews & Macleod, 2005) and have more negative expectations about the future (Steinman, Smyth, Bucks, Macleod, & Teachman, 2012). In a true disaster, anxious people may be quicker to see the extremity of the situation. But it’s hard to take them seriously when they always see disaster. And in my attempts to calm down my anxious friends and family, I managed to have a calming effect on myself.

The rise in media coverage also shaped my response—the more prevalent the coverage, the more stories I heard, the easier it was for me to imagine what was happening. This is the availability bias in action—the more easily and vividly we can recall something, the more common and serious we think it is. When something gets played up in the news, especially with detailed stories of people’s experiences, it can make rare events seem common. In this situation, the media’s increasing coverage likely helped people to take the pandemic more seriously and start modifying their behavior sooner than they would have otherwise.

Having personal experience with situations can also lead us to see them as more common—when the situation is rare, it may lead to overweighting the prevalence of rare events. In this case, it had the opposite effect for me: not knowing anyone who had the virus made it harder for me to realize the seriousness of the situation because it felt very removed from my own life. Because of the availability bias, I imagine that people who knew someone affected early on were much quicker to employ safety measures, even if the person they knew was in a different country.

Knowing about these biases helps me understand why I and others around me reacted the way they did. Unfortunately, knowing about them doesn’t tell me what to do next. I still find myself grappling daily with what to make of our current predicament. Humans are quick to adapt, and what feels unprecedented will just be the new normal in a few weeks. But what is the right thing to be thinking? I know that panic begets panic and through panic people have created supply shortages and rationing that didn’t need to exist. But then I wonder if I am still falling prey to the normalcy bias—will those who stocked up on supplies two weeks ago look like the smart ones next month? As the pandemic continues to unfold, we cannot be certain of the future nor can we rid ourselves of these biases altogether. However, recognizing them might help us make more informed decisions.

If you know that you tend to underreact, recognize the current situation is probably worse than you think. If you tend to overreact, recognize a two-month supply of canned beans is probably enough. Know that exposing yourself to constant media coverage is going to make you more aware of the problem (good if you weren’t aware enough, bad if you tend towards anxiety and have already gotten all of the daily updates you need). It may also help to realize that whether or not you know someone who has gotten COVID-19 is going to shape how prevalent you think it is (for many people I know, it was learning Tom Hanks had it that finally made it feel real). Because everyone is subject to these biases, the people whose opinions you seek will also have biases of their own, so keep that in mind when gathering information.

We also must recognize that once the situation is resolved, other biases like the outcome bias and hindsight bias (believing we could have predicted what was going to happen) will influence how we even make sense of the choices we made. For instance. if we fail to wear our seat belt but don’t get in a car accident, we see the decision to not wear a seat belt as less problematic than we would if we had gotten in a car accident, even though we did not know the outcome at the time we made the decision. Countering these types of retrospective biases will be important for helping us make informed decisions about how to prepare for similar situations in the future.

References

Mathews, A., & MacLeod, C. (2005). Cognitive vulnerability to emotional disorders. Annu. Rev. Clin. Psychol., 1, 167-195.

Steinman, S. A., Smyth, F. L., Bucks, R. S., MacLeod, C., & Teachman, B. A. (2013). Anxiety-linked expectancy bias across the adult lifespan. Cognition & emotion, 27(2), 345-355.