The Psychological Reasons Why Everyone Is Making Dumb Decisions About Covid

Blame our faulty brains. Luckily, there are ways to get out of the most common mental traps.

Group of friends hugging in person, no face masks.
Group of friends hugging in person, no face masks.
Photo: Hinterhaus Productions/Getty Images

Until there’s a safe and widespread vaccine rollout, the greatest weapons we have against the pandemic are the decisions we make every day. The bad news about this is that humans are notoriously lousy decision-makers.

Why, though? Blame our faulty brains: All of us possess cognitive biases that make it difficult to think rationally when faced with questions involving risk. Should we dine at a restaurant? Is it a good idea to send our kids back to school? Can we safely visit our folks to celebrate Thanksgiving?

While our instincts may be to go with the less-than-optimal choice, we’re not helpless. Simply knowing the reasons for our cognitive laziness can help us to make better, more informed decisions. Here are five common biases to look for, along with strategies to get yourself out of these mental traps.

The framing effect

When choosing between two outcomes, our preference often depends on how the outcomes are presented. This is called the framing effect. Pretend you have two options: taking a guaranteed win of $1 or making a gamble with a 50/50 chance of winning $2. Which would you choose? Chances are, you’d take the guaranteed $1.

But now let’s try a different scenario. Say you could either lose $1, or take a 50/50 gamble and lose either $2 or nothing. In this case, you’d probably take the gamble. That’s because people tend to be risk-averse when choosing between gains and risk-seeking when choosing between losses.

What does this all have to do with the pandemic? Say you’re invited to an evening gathering where it’s likely that everyone will end up inside someone’s home. Being in a crowded indoor space is obviously not a good idea right now. But if you view it as a choice between two losses — staying home and definitely missing out on some fun, or attending the gathering and possibly being exposed to Covid-19 — you’ll likely want to take the gamble.

How to get out of the mental trap: Try creating a more positive framing as a choice between gains. With the example of the gathering, you might tell yourself your options are to stay home, remain healthy, and definitively know that you haven’t harmed someone else, or go out and have fun, possibly stay healthy, and possibly not put anyone else in danger.

Availability heuristic

We often make decisions based on what we’ve experienced personally. With Covid, we make judgments on how “safe” things are by what we have cognitively available; for those of us who have not been infected, or who know someone who recovered quickly after only mild symptoms, the way we define safety may be less cautious. Of course, our personal experience does not corroborate with the reality and true risk of the virus.

How to get out of this mental trap: As Dan Rather recently wrote, “Human beings have a hard time comprehending scale. Our emotions are more resonant with the personal, the small tragedy.” So open yourself up to the personal. Read accounts by those who lost loved ones. Writes Rather: “I find the emerging number of nurses’ heartbreaking testimonials particularly affecting. I am moved by the pictures of smiling family members who had no idea when the photo was taken that they would soon die in pain and alone.”

Confirmation bias

Dealing with positive information is easier than dealing with negative information.

Many people still doubt the validity and severity of the crisis, and in an era of conspiracy theories, there is no shortage of resources to reinforce their beliefs. Our instinct is to actively seek information that confirms our worldview and ignore any information that counters it.

How to get out of this mental trap: Actively seek out evidence that challenges your fear response, which may stem from a belief that changing your mind means you’re weak or wishy-washy. Google’s Fact Check Explorer is a useful tool.

Temporal discounting

When asked to choose between two outcomes, one that offers an immediate gain and another that may yield an even greater gain but after a longer period of time, many people will choose the instant reward. (One of the most well-known examples of this is the controversial psychology experiment known as the Marshmallow test.)

Now consider the pandemic. Going out and enjoying ourselves has an obvious short-term gain. And there’s no certainty about when this will all be over. To many people, this makes the perceived gain of waiting it out almost negligible. That’s why it’s not surprising to see people indulging in their guilty pleasures despite the situation.

How to get out of this mental trap: Be mature. If you feel guilty or sheepish while making a certain decision, it’s probably a sign that you are doing something unwise.

Having said that, we’re only human, and everyone is lured by rewards. Give yourself small treats for resisting your urges. Order your favorite food at the end of every week you didn’t venture out for nonessential activities. Look for other, safer indulgences that give you short term pleasure: hiking, skiing, gardening, gaming, or maybe blasting the Taylor Swift album while dancing in your kitchen.

Decision fatigue

Every single day for nearly a year now, you’ve had to make decisions that affect the health of you and your family. Should I go home now that the park is getting crowded? Should I run into the store or do curbside pickup? Should I let my kids have outdoor playdates? Even for those who are committed to safety, it’s exhausting. After a while, it’s easy to lessen the amount of effort we put into making these everyday decisions.

How to get out of this mental trap: If you have a partner or housemate, share the mental load. Have one person be in charge of deciding what to eat that week, while the other can plan some socially distanced activities. It’s also helpful to have a decision-making checklist. Here’s one from the CDC.

For our own health and the health of those around us, it’s important to think about whether we’re making the best decision or one that’s simply a byproduct of our cognitive laziness. If it’s the latter, let’s use the tools we have to escape the traps of our own brains.

Aviation Geek | Grad student — writing to take a break from writing | Making Human Factors accessible one article at a time

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