COVID and Cognitive Bias: Rationalizing Danger

Fear, misinformation, and lack of leadership are a perfect storm for bias.

Posted May 21, 2020

Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3. These terms have been used with increased frequency as states have begun to reopen. However, it is not clear that most people know what Phase 1, 2, or 3 means. And that is not really surprising. Government guidelines are relatively flimsy, and states, not mandated by federal law, have taken matters into their own hands.

In the absence of clear guidance, many businesses and establishments have developed their own rules related to reopening. Individual interpretations of COVID-related information are prevalent. Such interpretations are not necessarily fact-based and are thus prone to error. Understanding how such misinterpretations occur and combatting them are essential for living in a safer world amid a global pandemic.

Current social conditions are ripe for reinterpretations of reality. First, we are living in a time of great uncertainty. The coronavirus is new, and definitive information about transmission, vaccine availability, and treatment is limited or lacking. Such a reality is scary and overwhelming.

Second, information about COVID-19 is inconsistent and confusing. Many individuals, groups, and organizations are releasing their own opinions or are leading misinformation campaigns rather than communicating facts. Third, we are in a leadership void. There are certainly officials who have deferred to qualified experts and have been strategic in their approach to handling the pandemic. However, one overarching authoritative voice is missing. Uncertainty, fear, inconsistent information and misinformation, and a lack of leadership have created a perfect storm for errors in thinking or cognitive bias.

For the most part, people have followed precautionary measures, such as staying at home as able, wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and washing their hands. At the same time, people seem to fall along a continuum in terms of adhering to these measures. On one end are those following precautions by the book; on the other end are individuals flouting safety measures. There is quite a lot of variation between these two ends.

This continuum of behaviors may be explained by how people process events. In particular, cognitive biases guide our decision-making and, ultimately, our behavior. Cognitive biases are faulty ways of thinking. They are a result of our attempts to understand information and make sense of the world. Such biases are not necessarily objective or logical; rather, they are influenced by mental shortcuts. In a world that seems uncertain, these shortcuts to decision-making feel comforting as they often provide a sense of control.

Here’s how some of these biases may play out during COVID-19:

Quarantine fatigue is real. Many are feeling frustrated, sad, depressed, and anxious. A desire to avoid these emotions and feel good, even if it is momentary, drives many to ignore social distancing or mask-wearing. Desperate to feel that things are back to “normal,” people may grab a coffee, meet up with friends, and congregate in large groups.

Affect Bias, whereby emotions are relied upon to make a decision, is at play here. Recognizing or admitting that their behavior is dangerous would cause too much Cognitive Dissonancediscomfort related to a preference for consistency between beliefs (cognitions) and behavior. So, people come up with rationalizations such as, “What damage could going out for just one cup of coffee do? I haven’t been outside for weeks.” “Other people are hanging out and doing the same, and they don’t look sick.” “It’s time that we get back to normal.” Information related to the degree of contagion, exponential growth rate, or asymptomatic individuals is not even considered or ignored.

Confirmation Bias refers to a tendency to interpret, search for, and favor information that supports our existing beliefs. In today’s world, algorithms track online likes, preferences, interests, and shopping patterns. Our social media feeds are replete with information consistent with our preferences and viewpoints. As a result, it often doesn’t take any work on our part to locate information that reinforces our positions.

So if one already believes that COVID-19 is a hoax and overblown, there are plenty of sources in one’s online feed that confirm those views. Moreover, our social media connections tend to be composed of those who share similar viewpoints, and this online community further reinforces our existing beliefs. People become overconfident in their personal beliefs, making them hard to change even in the face of contrary evidence.

Neighbors who are congregating together for drinks in their backyards—maskless and in close proximity—may be operating under Optimism Bias, whereby they underestimate their chances of contracting the virus, getting sick, or passing it along to others. Risk perception is low despite existing information about the number of people contracting the virus, falling ill, and dying.

In the context of inconsistent and confusing information and dispersed and sometimes inadequate leadership, Social Norms Bias is evident. This refers to people acting similarly to those in their communities and may account for why they consult with neighbors, friends, or chat groups regarding best practices instead of relying primarily on physicians or science-based institutions. Such bias is evident in posts to non-scientifically based group chats inquiring about whether and how others are organizing face-to-face playdates for their children, resuming cleaning services, and engaging in non-essential activities in which social distancing is impossible or very difficult to maintain.

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently said, “Denial is not a life strategy.” Opinions, hopes, wishful thinking, and reinterpretations are ruling the day. Parents are rationalizing playdates for their children by limiting them to one friend at a time. People are renting vacation apartments or homes by declaring that it is safe if no one has resided there for at least three days. Level of education and income seem to have no bearing on the nature of these opinions declared as facts. Physical safety becomes compromised as health precautions wane.

Becoming aware of our cognitive biases and understanding how they impact our thinking can help us to recognize the limits of our decision-making and potentially harmful behavior.