Humans Aren’t Logical, They’re Psychological Often with the Emphasis on the Psycho. From my book Power Talk: The Art of Effective Communication
In my book I Think Therefore I Am Wrong: A Guide to Bias, Fake News, Political Correctness and the Future of Mankind I discuss the default setting of the mind and list many biases that influence our decision-making. Some of these are very relevant to the crisis we face today and especially decisions about how and when to open up the economy.
One problem is that we are used to binary thinking, and consider things as either/or alternatives when things aren’t black and white but different shades of grey. So, the choice isn’t really between the economy or public health, because those are not independent factors. This means that a “return” to “normalcy” will require a graded resumption of “normality” with both factors being weighed.
As patience runs out, emotions will rule, potentially ruining the chances of balancing two goals with seemingly opposite outcomes. The fact is that humans aren’t very good at this.
Here are some key biases that are in play in this discussion and decision-making.
Bias blind spot. This refers to the tendency to see oneself as less biased than others, or to identify more cognitive biases in other people. We all do that!
Default effect. The tendency to favor the default, more conservative choice. Depending on your perspective, that would be opening up the economy asap, or keeping measures in place for months.
Exaggerated expectation. The tendency to expect overly extreme outcomes. This could easily factor into both “sides” of the argument and be used to shorten or prolong existing public health measures.
Focusing effect. Exaggerating the importance of one aspect of an event. This again is likely to be practiced by those on the extreme of the arguments, e.g. we should completely open up the economy now, or stay completely locked down for the foreseeable future.
Framing effect. Being influenced by how information is presented. So, for example, some will argue that we should follow Sweden’s example of keeping the economy open because they have done very well, while disregarding the fact that their current death rate is much higher than ours.
Hindsight bias. This is the tendency to look back at past events and seeing them as predictable at the time they occurred. This has been happening for while with numerous agencies either praising or criticizing the government and the President for his actions.
Hyperbolic discounting. This is the tendency for people to prefer immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs. This is an issue across the board, but it certainly speaks to the impatience of those who want to “return to normal”.
Illusion of control. This is the overestimation of one’s influence over external events. How much control do we actually have over events? There are all sorts of unforeseen scenarios that could make the situation worse. Horrendous weather conditions, a new virus, etc., etc.
Illusion of validity. This is the tendency to believe that our judgments are accurate, despite inconsistent or unavailable information. The data about the virus has been inconsistent and incomplete. We should at least recognize the limitations of our thinking and factor that into decision-making.
Illusion of Correlation. That just because two things happen around the same time, they are somehow causally related. This is critical aspect of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. And there have been several of these going around, not least of which is that the novel coronavirus is somehow a function of 5G networks.
Illusory truth effect. Believing that a statement is true when it is easier to understand, or if it has been stated many times, independent of its validity. So, some people might believe the 5G notion because they have seen it stated several times.
The Sunk Cost Fallacy. When we justify putting more money (or any resources) into a project based on what has already been spent rather that a rational analysis of the probability of success. This could mean providing more money as an economic stimulus even as it appears it isn’t worth it. Or continuing with an economic shutdown because that’s what we have been doing all along.
Neglect of probability. Disregarding probability when making a decision that is complicated. There is a tendency to assume probabilities are facts when they are not. So, we should ask what are the probabilities for both positive and negative outcomes for all considered measures.
Normalcy bias. The refusal to accurately consider planning for, or reacting to, a seriously negative event that has never happened before. We already have the assumption that we will “get back to normal”. But it is likely several things will change and all of the “normal” might not return.
Optimism bias. The tendency to overestimate pleasing outcomes. We won’t know outcomes until they have been tried. Of course, we want to believe that our decisions will have great pay-offs, but you won’t know until you try and you should have a contingency plan in case you are too optimistic.
Pessimism bias. The tendency to overestimate negative outcomes. See above.
Planning fallacy. The tendency to underestimate the time it takes to complete a task. This is relevant in this crisis. How long will it really take to “open up the economy” or completely vanquish the virus?
Present bias. The tendency to favor current rather than future payoffs. So, for example, we should get the economy back on its feet because the lack of money seems more pressing and present than the threat of dying.
Pro-innovation bias. An unverified optimism about an invention or innovation’s value simply because it is new, while failing to recognize its limitations and weaknesses. Are some of these new proposed drugs and tests are as good as we think they are, or are we blinded by their promise rather than their effects?
Projection bias. The tendency to assume our future selves will share our current preferences, thoughts and values. We can’t predict the future or assume that we will think the same way in the future.
Reactance. Doing the opposite of what someone asks you to do on the rationalization that you don’t want to be seen as having your freedom of choice constrained. We have seen many examples of this during the lockdown, as people refuse to social distance and quarantine rationalized as rights infringements.
Reactive devaluation. Discrediting proposals simply because you think they were devised by an adversary. This is particularly relevant and highly damaging in the political arena and is the danger of partisan politics
Regressive bias. The exaggeration of high values and probabilities, and the minimizing of low values and probabilities. So, hypothetically the experts might say, if we open up the economy now, there’s a 60% chance that the virus won’t be a health problem. Sounds like a good plan but it probably sounds better than it is, because there’s still a 40% chance the virus will still create major problems.
Naïve realism. The belief that we see reality as it really is. We are objective and the facts are obvious and those that disagree are obviously uninformed, lazy, irrational and certainly biased. Clearly, we see that happening already.
And of course, there’s the ubiquitous Conformation Bias that we all employ to see the information that supports our views and ignore, minimize and attack the information that doesn’t.
The answer is to recognize the limitations, make the best informed decisions we can and prepare for all eventualities.
“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” – Confucius
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