covid and cognitive biases
Founder of ICense and Professor of Neuromarketing at Hult International Business School
The COVID-19 pandemic is a worldwide phenomenon and it is on top of the news across the globe. Among the many aspects that could be discussed about this tragic period, there is one that should attract the attention of psychologists, neuroscientists, economists and marketeers.
This crisis is providing real-time insights on irrational human behavior.
Since Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel prize in 2002 for his influential studies on behavioral economics, it became clear that humans are deeply irrational beings. Although being irrational is arguably a good thing more often than not, as it allows us to make quick decisions even when very little information is available, strong emotions, such as fear, can have a negative impact on our decision making and strongly bias our behavior.
Researchers from different fields have identified hundreds of psychological biases - i.e. systematic errors in human decision making and judgement - that cause people to behave irrationally. Some of these biases can help us understand the absurd behavior we have been observing these last weeks.
What are the psychological biases that are driving people's behavior during the Covid-19 pandemic?
In the initial phases of the pandemic, despite the worrying news arriving from the city of Wuhan in China and the shocking images of crowded hospitals and entire cities being isolated, the government and the citizens in EU countries were greatly underestimating the impact of the virus.
In Italy, the first EU country experiencing the tragic consequences of the Covid-19 contagion, government officials urged the population to go out at night for the classic "aperitivo" in the streets of Milan, one of the cities in Europe that is currently counting the highest number of people who contracted the virus.
In France, despite the warnings arriving from China and Italy, Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte went to theater to incite the French population to get out of their homes despite the contagion outbreak. Even if these choices could be driven in part by political reasons, they also testify of what psychologists and economists refer to as the optimism bias.
The optimism bias is essentially the wrong belief that that chances that we experience something tragic is lower than our peers. In other words, it is the wrong belief that "it cannot happen to me, I am special!".
The optimism bias can lead to very poor decision-making, which can in turn have disastrous results for our lives.
The optimism bias is not biasing our choices only in times of crisis such as the ones we are all experiencing now. We actually display this bias almost everyday; when we do not wear the seatbelt in the car, when we do not put on sunscreen or when we decide to smoke a cigarette. All these behaviors are accompanied by the belief that after all we are less likely to get in an accident, get skin or lung cancer.
However, what makes this bias particularly dangerous during Covid-19 pandemic is that while in normal conditions such risky behavior affects only ourselves, here we are putting at risk the life of hundreds if not thousands of other people. The belief that "I won't get skin cancer if I don't use sunscreen" is dangerous for myself and maybe for my family members. The belief that "I won't get infected by the virus" or "I won't experience the severe symptoms of the viral infection" can have harmful consequences for all the people I meet in the streets, at work, in the public transports or even at home.
Connected to the optimism bias is also the widespread belief that the virus only affects "old people", or people who are more than 60 years old. This is probably due to the higher number of reported cases among the old population as compared to the younger people, which generates a form of availability bias.
If people can quickly think about several examples of an event, they will believe that it is the most common. For instance, after seeing several news reporting about car thefts in your city, you will probably form the belief that car theft is much more common than it really is in your city. In a similar vein, being exposed to the news reporting mainly cases among old people with a medical conditions, reinforces the conviction that the infection is only a problem for the old population.
The availability bias is usually helpful and important in decision making, because it allows us to reach fast decisions when information is scarce, but it can also lead us to underestimate the likelihood of other scenarios.
It should be noted that the probability of severe symptoms and death is indeed higher among older people (especially those with underlying medical conditions). However, many variables about the pandemic are still unknown.
For instance, the estimates about the mortality rate among the young population are not definitive and they do not take into account the situation in which people cannot receive adequate medical treatment - a possible scenario if the number of infected patients surpasses the healthcare system capacity. In addition, it is not clear whether the virus can mutate into more or less aggressive strains.
In other words, even if the virus is more dangerous for the old population, we should not underestimate the possible consequences for the younger population, especially when epidemiological data are still limited.
Awareness about these potentially dangerous psychological biases may stop us from engaging in risky behavior and reduce our chances of getting infected (and infect others) by COVID-19.