Attribution Bias Can Kill You

Attribution bias may tell you that COVID-19 isn't an issue. It is.

Posted Jul 05, 2020

Photo by Tai's Captures on Unsplash
Attribution bias may be fooling you into thinking you don't need to wear a mask.
Source: Photo by Tai's Captures on Unsplash

In a previous post on attribution bias, I wrote about how this cognitive fallacy can cause issues in relationships. When we place significant importance on our most recent memory or an event that has a lot of emotional weight, it can cause us to have difficulties working with our partner to come up with solutions. 

Here's how attribution bias may be impacting you if you aren't wearing a mask.  Let's say that your most recent memory is that you don't know anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19. Therefore, you think that you are "safe" and don't need to wear a mask. You may also have strong feelings about not wanting to feel like someone is telling you what to do. The most recent news story you saw that made you upset was about a city giving a mandate to residents that they needed to wear a mask to slow the spread of Covid-19.

So you decide not to wear a mask. You feel you are making a "statement" about individual freedoms, and you don't know anyone who has Covid-19 anyway. So attribution bias tells you it's not that big of a deal.  Plus you have leaders telling you that Covid-19 not a big deal, that they're not going to wear masks, and that there are just more positive tests just because more people are getting tested. (This has been proven to be a false statement.) 

Here's where attribution bias comes in: Your recent memory tells you that you don't know anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19, so you think it's really not as big of a deal as you think the media are portraying. However, you can be asymptomatic (not showing any signs of Covid-19) and still pass Covid-19 on to someone else. You may develop mild symptoms or none at all — but the person you transmitted it to could have serious permanent damage or die from it. 

Also, because steps were taken to isolate and socially distance, it may have appeared that Covid-19 wasn't as serious as expected. However, you have seen that with a relaxing of restrictions, cases of Covid-19 have spiked, particularly in states that eased restrictions earlier than recommended. It didn't seem like that big of a deal because the restrictions worked

You may be watching or reading news only from a particular source, and that source has repeated that Covid-19 is "overblown," and that masks are an infringement on your rights. Because you have restricted yourself to that one source, attribution bias is making you put weight on your most recent memories — in this case, your news source telling you why you shouldn't wear a mask. 

You also last watched a video on YouTube where someone told you (erroneously) that a mask decreases your available oxygen. So attribution bias tells you that this must be the correct answer.  However, in reality, masks don't change your ability to breathe or oxygenate.   

Attribution bias also tells you that because you were angered by someone telling people to wear a mask, that the correct solution is to not wear one. However, masks have been found to significantly slow the spread of Covid-19. A mask is not an infringement on your rights — it is a way to protect yourself and others. A more productive way to use your feelings about personal rights is to look at how we have a personal right to protect others in our community and to be protected from others who might be contagious.  

Remember, attribution bias causes us to give more weight or credibility to something that recently happened to us, or an event that caused us to feel strong emotions. It doesn't mean that it is necessarily the correct response or solution. By looking at how attribution bias may have altered our ability to make a sound decision, we can take steps to rectify our opinions and actions. In this case, wearing a mask because it is the best option for you and others around you.

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