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The World’s Virus Ignites Personal Bias

A researcher's journey through the Coronavirus pandemic.

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On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s the likelihood you will get coronavirus? If you’re like me, you might say 4 or even 6. I probably should say 7 or 8 since I live in a U.S. hotspot, but still, I definitely don’t think I’m at 10.

The truth is, I don’t know – humans are not good at predicting the future – and what I think I know about my chances of getting this disease keeps changing, each time influenced by my own behavioral biases.

No Big Deal

When I first heard of the coronavirus in China in early February, I felt like someone was calling me from far away but I couldn’t hear them well, so I ignored it. I kept seeing news about adults getting ill, and my brain registered it as info but it did not ring as an emergency. Then, in a matter of weeks, the bells began to ring louder and louder as I heard of the first infected person in Washington. But still, optimism bias kicked in and I assumed I was less likely to experience the coronavirus since those affected were only the elderly.

Worry crept in a little, as I started to get concerned for my 80-year-old father-in-law who was visiting and my two young kids who still require handwashing reminders. I searched for information that would validate my feeling of concern or contradict it. I asked Dr. Google for the coronavirus symptoms list and most of the information I found indicated that we were all good.

So, I began operating from a hypothesis that my chance of dying was less than one percent even if I became infected, so no need to panic. Then, in a matter of days, my social media channels were inundated with new information… but I conveniently aligned this data with my existing belief of low risk. I continued working while subconsciously comforting myself with this confirmation bias. This bias works against us because we are prone to believe what we already know, making it hard for us to accept any information that might refute our beliefs – in this case, that we may all get the coronavirus at some point.

I was even annoyed with the “Do not touch your eyes” message. It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with the command, but that I suddenly discovered that I touch my eyes every 20 seconds and began experiencing Baader-Meinhof phenomenon which is when you become aware of something new and start seeing it everywhere. (Editor’s note: See also The Frequency Illusion.)

Uh Oh Time

But soon, the sudden increase in mortality rates in Italy made me very nervous. I felt the “OMG moment,” realizing my father-in-law was at high risk and could die. Images of empty shelves flooded my social media feed, signaling that I needed to rush to the store to stockpile canned goods, hand sanitizer and the like. I asked my husband if we had toilet paper. He said, “Plenty.” What about our food supply? “Low.” We needed to shop. You can see where the priorities lie in my household.

I hate shopping, so I asked him to do it, even though I was nervous that if he got near someone who coughed or touched something infected, our entire family would fall ill. My brain was wrapped in scarcity bias, placing a high value on items that were scarce versus those that were in abundance. I started to understand why people run crazy to buy toilet paper. (Editor’s note: For more on the behavioral science of stockpiling, read “ Science Solutions to Stockpiling.”)

Unfortunately, present bias was also in full gear when I sent my husband for supplies. This bias has to do with immediate rewards over long term gains. It would feel good to be prepared and have control over my fate, something that the inertia of staying home and waiting for things to play out wouldn’t have achieved. So I made him go.

Other People’s Biases

I started to read about Chinese restaurants in Seattle being negatively affected as people assumed that workers there would give them the virus. Consciously or subconsciously, people let fear govern, and they categorized Chinese Americans as outsiders. They assigned negative judgments as a result of outgroup bias, which in this case manifested xenophobia.

Times like this require that we step out of biases and call out those engaging in xenophobia to prevent the stereotype from prevailing. I was happy to see that Intentionalist – a company that supports small businesses – was among those that did this and invited people to support small businesses like these across the region. It was a great reminder to no allow fear to take over my own brain and I ordered Thai food to ensure my favorite restaurant felt the love instead of the fear.  

Big Brother Sent Me Home

When the government took it up a notch and asked me to social distance and become a recluse for the safety of everyone, I felt out of my comfort zone. Even though I normally work from home, I found the command difficult, even if necessary. This is not your typical work from home arrangement: conditions are extraordinary, mobility is significantly restricted and the health and economic survival of my family is at stake. I felt that all the work from home tips on my newsfeed did not apply. (Editor’s note: Ahem, allof them? Even “Work From Home Like a Behavioral Scientist”?)

There are real psychological consequences to this. Research shows that feelings of isolation make us more susceptible to illness, increased anxiety, panic attacks, and depression and reduce our ability to think clearly. I know my ability to think logically and deliberately (System 2 thinking) is diminished while my System 1 thinking (emotional and intuitive) is amplified leading me to be more irritable. (For more on System 1 v System 2, read this one and this one and this.)

To combat this, I try to be attuned to my feelings and thoughts, pausing more often before responding to emails. I believe this time of adjustment extends beyond myself and my family. If managers and organizations want to survive this pandemic without permanently damaging employee relations, we need to do the following: make space for reflection, adjust performance expectations, offer access to mental health resources (such as crisis text line), find new ways to connect with colleagues and exercise compassion.

My Brain Keeps Trying to Get Me in Trouble

My brain continued to pull me toward the biased decision to have human contact while ignoring the fact that the healthcare system can’t deal with a massive influx of patients in a short amount of time. To cope with the stress, I increased my meditation time, tried to detox from social media and played more soccer with my family.

Despite all of this, I daydream of having a normal life again and meeting people, all while thinking that my health is better than the average person and fully believing that the statistics I read make me low risk. This fantasy world submerges me into overconfidence bias(See also The Dunning-Kruger EffectIllusory Superiority and the Boardroom Double Down.)

The reality is that I can’t attest to the accuracy of all the statistics I read and accurately judge my level of risk. Nevertheless, I know there is some risk and I could end up being be one of those patients waiting for a ventilator, assigned to an overworked medical professional who unconsciously falls prey to scarcity bias just like I did. As a result, he or she may decide to save someone else instead of me. So, yes, I should care and isolate and take all of my meetings online, to save not just my life but the lives of others as well.

The best way I have found to override my subconscious biases is to be aware of them, first, and second, to stop and engage my moral compass when my biases push me to act irrationally. Whether in our personal or organizational lives – and whether in such high stakes situations as this or more “normal” ones – recognizing our biases is the first step. Then we can engage deliberate thinking to start to circumvent these biases to ensure the health and well-being of everyone, not just ourselves. 

First published in People Science.

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