Mental Biases in a Pandemic
The global magazine, Foreign Policy, has compiled a list of things that kill more people than sharks – trampolines, roller coasters, vending machines and furniture/TVs: In fact more than 26 people die every year after being crushed by furniture/TVs, and only an average of six people die each year from shark attacks. With these numbers there should be an entire week dedicated to furniture/TV attacks on Discovery Channel.
Humans are not very good at analyzing risk. We are all afraid of sharks, but never give our furniture a second look. We all come with biases, prejudices, paradigms, different education levels and viewpoints that influence and filter the way we think. This is all before we consider normalcy bias. Here is what Wikipedia says about normalcy bias, “It is a tendency for people to believe that things will function in the future the way they normally have functioned in the past, and therefore we underestimate both the likelihood of a disaster and its possible effects.” It’s reported that 70% of people display normalcy bias during disasters. It’s what makes people reach for their laptops and suitcases when they exit a plane during a serious emergency.
Our neighborhood in Boise, Idaho held a social-distancing happy hour a couple of weeks ago in the street, but it failed. Everyone intended to stay six feet apart, but it just didn’t work. Our neighbors would never swim in the ocean when a shark was reported in the area, but mixing while in a pandemic did not trigger their flight of fight mechanisms. Normalcy bias won the day.
Last week I watched as Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reviewed likely impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic based on data models and data analytics. The interview was somber, but many people, based on their “gut feelings,” just didn’t seem to understand or believe in the significance of the math.
Another way of describing a “gut feeling” is heuristics. Heuristics are mental strategies that we all use to quickly form judgments, make decisions, and find solutions to complex problems without having to think too much. They are shortcuts based on past experiences and perceived similar situations. We don’t think like computers. We don’t evaluate things mathematically, or by examining the relative probabilities of different events, we most often look for examples from our past that we can apply to current situations, accurately or not, to save us time and to simplify complex problems in our mind.
Heuristics can be very helpful. They help us save a lot of time. For example, when preparing to sit in a chair, we don’t find it necessary to study the design and do the math each time before evaluating if it will support our weight. We can quickly tell, from past experiences, that the chair is highly likely to support our weight. The problem with heuristics comes when we are faced with new and unfamiliar scenarios like a pandemic. We can’t effectively apply a mental shortcut or a previous experience to jump quickly to a solution.
During an unprecedented crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, we must recognize it is new, different and unfamiliar. We must fight against all of our mental urges to simplify and skip ahead to familiar solutions and plans. We must avoid normalcy bias, where we follow old patterns that are risky today. We need a new canvas to start a new set of mental images.
I have spent the past decade studying digital transformation and leadership. Time after time companies have failed because their old guard leadership could not mentally adjust to a world of online commerce, digital customer experiences, digital marketplaces and social selling. They could not make the mental adjustment that digital transformation required. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is another such transformational point in history. Will we each be able to make the mental adjustments to the new post-pandemic normal?