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Published on June 2, 2020

How Not to Let Cognitive Bias Control Us When Dealing with COVID-19

How Not to Let Cognitive Bias Control Us When Dealing with COVID-19

Why have so many people made so many bad decisions around COVID-19?

On the one hand, many ignored the information about the pandemic at first, dismissing its importance. Plenty believed — and some continue to believe — COVID-19 is no worse than the flu and shouldn’t be a concern. Others thought the US medical system would easily cope with it, as it did with SARS and other respiratory infections. Many think it will blow over soon, disappearing with the warm weather in the summer.

On the other hand, plenty of people have taken aggressive — and unhelpful — actions to address their fears. Many have engaged in panic buying, stocking up on more toilet paper than they can use in a year and getting canned goods that they will never eat. Others turned to hyped-up miracle cures offered by modern-day snake oil salespeople, despite health experts clearly conveying that there’s no known treatment or cure for COVID-19.

Such poor decision making stem from dangerous judgment errors that cognitive neuroscientists like myself call cognitive biases[1]. These mental blind spots impact all areas of our life, from health to relationships and even shopping, as a study recently revealed[2]. We need to be wary of cognitive biases in order to survive and thrive during this pandemic.

What Are Cognitive Biases?

A cognitive bias is a result of a combination of our evolutionary background[3] and specific structural features in how our brains are wired. Many of these mental blind spots proved beneficial for our survival[4] in the ancestral savanna environment, when we lived as hunter-gatherers in small tribes. Our ability to survive and reproduce depended on fast instinctive responses much more than reflective analysis.

Our primary threat response, which stems from the ancient savanna environment, is the fight-or-flight response. You might have heard of it as the saber-toothed tiger response: our ancestors had to jump at a hundred shadows to get away from a saber-toothed tiger or to fight members of an invading tribe.

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This lizard brain response proved a great fit for the kind of short-term intense risks we faced as hunter-gatherers. We are the descendants of those who had a great instinctive fight-or-flight response: the rest did not survive.

Unfortunately, our natural gut reaction to threats to either fight or flee results in terrible decisions in the modern environment. It’s particularly bad for defending us from major disruptions caused by the slow-moving train wrecks we face in the modern environment, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thus, the people who ignored — and continue to ignore — the reality of the dangers from COVID-19 are expressing the flight response. They’re fleeing from uncomfortable information, ignoring the reality of the situation. The people who are taking aggressive and unhelpful actions are expressing the fight response: trying to take control of the situation by doing what they can to fight COVID-19.

Neither of these very natural responses is the right response, of course. Our natural instincts often lead us in exactly the wrong direction in our modern civilized environment. That’s why we need to adopt civilized (and unnatural) behavior habits to ensure we develop mental fitness to make the best decisions.

You already take unnatural and civilized steps for the sake of your physical health. In the ancient savanna, it was critical for us to eat as much sugar as possible to survive when we came across honey, apples, or bananas. We are the descendants of those who were strongly triggered by sugar. Right now, our gut reactions still pull us to eat as much sugar as possible, despite the overabundance of sugar in our modern world and the harm caused by eating too many sweets.

Just like you take proactive steps to go against your intuition to protect your physical health, you need to go against your intuitions and adopt civilized decision-making habits to protect yourself from COVID-19 and so many other modern-day problems that didn’t exist in the ancestral savanna.

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The Most Relevant Cognitive Biases for COVID-19

More specifically, you need to watch out for three cognitive biases.

The Normalcy Bias

The normalcy bias[5] refers to the fact that our intuitions cause us to feel that the future, at least in the short and medium term of the next couple of years, will function in roughly the same way as the past: normally. That was a safe assumption in the savanna environment, but not today, when the world is changing at an increasingly rapid pace.

This bias leads us to fail to prepare nearly as well as they should for the likelihood and effects of major disruptions, especially slow-moving train wrecks such as pandemics. As a result, we tend to vastly underestimate both the possibility and impact of a disaster striking us.

Moreover, in the midst of the event itself, people react much more slowly than they ideally should, getting stuck in the mode of gathering information instead of deciding and acting.

While the normalcy bias is the most harmful cognitive bias from which we suffer in the face of the pandemic, it’s far from the only one. In fact, a number of other cognitive biases combined with normalcy bias lead to bad decisions about the pandemic.

The Attentional Bias

One of these, attentional bias, refers to our tendency to pay attention to information that we find most emotionally engaging, and to ignore information that we don’t[6]. Given the intense, in-the-moment nature of threats and opportunities in the ancestral savanna, this bias is understandable. Yet, in the modern environment, sometimes information that doesn’t feel emotionally salient is actually really important.

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For example, the fact that the novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, and caused massive sickness and deaths there didn’t draw much attention as a salient potential threat among Europeans and Americans. It proved too easy to dismiss the importance of the outbreak in Wuhan due to stereotypical and inaccurate visions of the Chinese heartland as full of backwoods peasants.

In reality, Wuhan is a global metropolis. The largest city in central China, it has over 11 million people and produced over $22.5 billion in 2018. It has a good healthcare system, strengthened substantially by China after the SARS pandemic. A major travel hub, Wuhan’s nickname is “the Chicago of China”; it had over 500 international flights per day before the outbreak. If we assume an average of 250 people per plane, that’s 10,000 people a day flying out of Wuhan.

Europeans and Americans, with the exception of a small number of experts, failed to perceive the threat to themselves from the breakdown of Wuhan’s solid healthcare system as it became overwhelmed by COVID-19. They arrogantly assumed this breakdown pointed to the backwardness of central China, rather than the accurate perception that any modern medical system would become overwhelmed in the face of the novel coronavirus.

In the savanna environment, our ancestors had to live in and for the moment since they couldn’t effectively invest resources to improve their future states (it’s not like they could freeze the meat of the mammoths they killed). Right now, we have many ways of investing into our future lives, such as saving money in banks. Yet our instincts always drive us to orient toward short-term rewards and sacrifice our long-term future, a mental blind spot called hyperbolic discounting[7].

This helps explain why so many people are not focusing sufficiently on the long-term impact of the pandemic. Many are rushing to “get back to normal,” failing to realize that doing so will leave them very vulnerable both to COVID-19 and the disruptions accompanying the impact of the pandemic.

The Planning Fallacy

We tend to feel optimistic about our plans: we made them, and therefore the plans must be good, right? We intuitive feel that our plans will go accordingly, failing to prepare adequately enough for threats and risks. As a result, our initial plans often don’t work out. We either fail to accomplish our goals or require much more time, money, and other resources to get where we wanted to go originally, a cognitive bias known as the planning fallacy[8]. Moreover, we don’t pivot quickly enough when external events require us to change our plans.

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Thus, the vast majority of us were unprepared for a major disruption like COVID-19. Moreover, a great many people tried to go ahead with their plans when they should have pivoted, such as holding weddings, going on vacations, and so on.

Addressing Cognitive Bias

To address these cognitive biases in relation to the pandemic, you have to adopt a realistic and even pessimistic perspective. We have no way of coping with the pandemic save a combination of shutdowns and social distancing. We will see wave-like periods[9] of tight restrictions that result in less cases, then loosened restrictions with spikes of cases, and then again tightened restrictions.

Such waves will last until we find an effective vaccine and vaccinate at least the most vulnerable demographics, which in the most optimistic scenario will not be until late 2021. If things don’t go perfectly, it might be more like 2023 or 2024: that’s the moderate scenario. In more pessimistic scenarios, we might not have an effective vaccine until 2027 or even later.

Does that feel unreal to you? That’s the cognitive biases talking. We still don’t have an effective vaccine for the flu, as our current version is only about 50% effective in preventing infections.

Ray Dalio, who leads Bridgewater Associates and manages over $150 billion in investor assets, said early in the pandemic : “As with investing, I hope that you will imagine the worst-case scenario and protect yourself against it”[10]. So what would it mean for you if you plan for the worst while, of course, hoping for the best?

The Bottom Line

You need to pivot for the long term by revising your plans[11] in a way that accounts for the cognitive bias associated with COVID-19. By doing so, you’ll protect yourself and those you care about from our deeply inadequate gut reactions in the face of such slow-moving train wrecks.

More Tips on Overcoming Cognitive Bias

Featured photo credit: Ani Kolleshi via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Cognitive neuroscientist and behavioral economist; CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts; multiple best-selling author

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Published on November 2, 2020

How to Use Your Unconscious Mind to Get What You Want

How to Use Your Unconscious Mind to Get What You Want

I get my best ideas when I’m not trying—when I’m zoning out in the shower or taking my dog for a walk. Suddenly, something I’ve been racking my brain to figure out seems to just come to me. It may seem like magic, but it’s actually just my unconscious mind coming through for the win.

What Is Conscious Thought?

Let’s start by explaining what the unconscious mind is not. I want you to think about what your dream house would look like if money were no object. Then, think about where you were the first time you can remember feeling joy.

That voice in your head that was talking you through those two tasks is your conscious mind. Simply put, any thought process that you are aware of (conscious of) is part of your conscious mind. I’m using my conscious mind as I sit here and write this article.

One of the major brain centers for conscious thought is in your prefrontal cortex. This is on the outside of your brain behind your forehead. Some of the downsides of conscious thought are that it’s energetically taxing and finite. What I mean is, your conscious mind can only think one thing at a time, and it burns through a lot of glucose to do so.

Try to figure out the square root of 2400 while creating a grocery list. You can skip back and forth between those two tasks, but your conscious mind can’t wrestle with both simultaneously.

Also, think of a time when you were utilizing your conscious mind for an extended period. Maybe you were in classes all day or busy with a tough work task late into the night. You were probably exhausted after such intensive and extended conscious thought.

What Is the Unconscious Mind?

That’s why the unconscious mind is such a valuable resource. It isn’t energy taxing, and it is virtually limitless. Your unconscious mind could be trying to figure out thousands of problems right now.

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The downside is that you aren’t conscious of any of it until you are—until your unconscious thoughts make it into your consciousness.

That’s why it behooves us to figure out how to create the right environment for our unconscious minds to flourish.

System 1 and System 2 Thinking

Daniel Kahneman’s seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow gives us another way to think about the difference between the unconscious and conscious minds. Kahneman describes two different modes of thought called System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is quick, emotional, and intuitive, while System 2 is slow, methodical, and logical. System 1 works in tandem with System 2.

For example, if you see someone looking at you, your System 1 might assume they are upset with you. Then, your System 2 takes over to process information and discern what might actually be going on at that moment.

Kahneman warns us that System 1 and System 2 are metaphors for how the mind works.[1] It would be an oversimplification to try to explain specific regions where System 1 and System 2 thinking takes place. However, System 1 and 2 is a powerful way of thinking about different modes of thinking. Kahneman calls System 1 automatic thinking and System 2 effortful.

The idea of focus is key here. In a famous experiment, participants were told to watch a video and count how many times people in the video passed a ball to each other. This required their System 2 thinking. However, the intense focus required for this experiment caused most people to miss the fact that while the people in the video were passing the ball, a person in a gorilla suit slowly made his way through the shot.

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How to Make Your Unconscious Mind Work For You

Focusing too intensely can cause us to miss details and solutions better suited to our unconscious mind. That’s why we sometimes have to stop and chill out, instead of forcing solutions.

Here are five ways to make your unconscious mind work for you.

1. Manage Stress

Your unconscious mind is not a big fan of you being stressed out, overworked, or overwhelmed. Managing stress is important if you want to be able to come up with those effortless “aha!” ideas.

Imagine that you’re under a strict work deadline. Your anxiety is compounded by the fact that you’re worried about losing your job and that your entire family relies on your income. This is an incredible amount of pressure that makes it tough for your unconscious mind to break through with that effortless creativity.

Think back to the video where the person in the gorilla suit sneaks through all the people passing the ball around. Most people are so focused on the task at hand that they don’t see the most interesting part of the video. Stress and pressure can lead to a kind of tunnel vision that works the same way. Our attention becomes so narrowly focused that we aren’t able to zoom out and connect the dots between broader patterns and ideas.

That’s why it’s crucial to find ways to manage stress. I recently spoke with humor engineer Drew Tarvin who explained the 4 R’s of managing stress.[2]

First, try to reduce stress by eliminating stressors from your life. This might mean finding a less stressful job or leaving earlier for work.

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Next, reframe the stresses that you can’t eliminate. Reframing isn’t pretending that your stress doesn’t exist; it’s trying to think differently and change your perspective about stressors that do exist. This might mean looking at the bright side or trying to see the bigger picture. If I don’t want to quit my stressful job, I can try to reframe by thinking more about the money I make or the times I feel fulfilled at work.

The third step is to relieve stress. This means finding ways to relax throughout the day. You might try meditating or watching funny cat videos on YouTube to clear your head and relieve your stress.

Finally, refresh. Find ways to take more extensive breaks where you completely de-stress. Pre-COVID, this might have meant taking a vacation to a beach somewhere. But now, you’ll have to get more creative as you find ways to put your phone down, forget about work, and come back completely refreshed.

2. Take Breaks

Part of stress management is taking breaks. But taking breaks is also an important part of tapping into your unconscious mind.

When I’m trying to figure out how to structure an article or put together ideas for a larger project, I schedule in time to completely put the project down. This allows my unconscious mind the freedom to come up with some truly novel solutions, and unlike conscious thought, it feels effortless.

This is that experience of the light bulb suddenly going on while you’re showering or driving to work. When you aren’t focused on anything in particular, your unconscious mind has the quiet it needs to bubble up to become conscious thought.

So, take breaks. One strategy is what’s called the Pomodoro Technique, which is when you stop to take a five-minute break after every 25 minutes of work. This allows you to recharge. Plus, by systematically easing your intense focus, you are giving your unconscious mind opportunities to come up with some truly novel ideas.

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3. Get Creative

The unconscious mind is great at effortlessly seeing patterns and finding interesting solutions, but for this to happen, it needs some inspiration. That means creating and consuming as much creativity as you can.

Pick up an artistic or creative hobby. Paint, write, build, or dance. It’s also helpful to consume creativity. Go to museums, read poetry, and walk in nature. Taking in creativity with your conscious mind will give your unconscious mind all the inspiration it needs to be able to do its thing.

4. Don’t Force It

The most crucial takeaway about the unconscious mind is that you can’t force it. You can struggle and strain all you want when you’re using your conscious mind, but the unconscious mind can only bubble to the surface when you aren’t trying so hard.

Think back to that phenomenon of having an aha moment while you’re showering or walking your dog. The unconscious mind is better able to break through when you aren’t focused so intensely on whatever it is you’re trying to solve.

So, relax and give yourself some time and space. That’s when your unconscious mind is most likely to breakthrough.

5. Play

Finally, don’t forget about the power of play. Play is inherently fun, and a playful mode of thinking allows your unconscious mind more of a chance to innovate. If you turn your task into a game, you’ll be more relaxed, have more fun, and collaborate better with your colleagues. That means you’ll be more likely to riff and get to a more creative “unconscious mind” solution.

You can also add play throughout your day to tap into this freer, less constrained kind of thinking. Turn your commute into a game, play hide and seek with your children, or join a local bowling league. This will help you get reacquainted with your childlike sense of joy, wonder, and curiosity—all key ingredients to nurturing and fostering your unconscious mind.

Final Thoughts

Dealing with and utilizing your unconscious mind is very different from doing so with your conscious mind. Tapping your unconscious mind is a technique that, when done right, can help you get what you want by untapping your potential.

Featured photo credit: Katerina Jerabkova via unsplash.com

Reference

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