Not Quite Six Feet Apart: Bias in a Pandemic

Dr. Adam Foley

Director- Diversity Education, Assessment, & Outreach

The last two months have provided me, like many of you, with an immense amount of information to process. It isn’t an overstatement to say that this pandemic is a generation-defining moment. The effects on all aspects of our society will be deep and long-lasting. It’s not a stretch to think that perhaps in 20 years, college students will be majoring in “Covid-19 Studies.” We’ll certainly see scholars in a variety of disciplines emerge to analyze our current thoughts, actions, and reactions. All of that is in addition to the scientific work currently being done which will help us understand a myriad other concerns in the future. Right now, though, it’s hard to just wade through the sea of information and misinformation. We are having conversations about how best to respond to conspiracy theories and reading actual warnings from government agencies about not ingesting household cleaners. These are strange times, to be sure. They are also, in some ways, predictably unpredictable. 

Our own biases might then give us some insight into the immensely disparate responses to this pandemic on a psychological, sociological, and political level. Generally speaking, a bias is simply a partiality towards something. We all favor a particular sports team, restaurant, or that hoodie we’ve worn just a few too many times since being quarantined. Cognitive biases can be grouped into two categories. Information biases cause us to take shortcuts in interpretations while making decisions. Ego biases allow our emotions and sense of self to excessively influence our decisions. 

a hand holding a lens, with a focused landscape view inside

Photo by Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

Let’s look at some general decision-making biases impacting our response to Covid-19, and then we’ll dive into some more specific ramifications. 

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Is this ringing a bit too true for you these days? Amnesia Bias refers to our tendency to quickly forget the results and mistakes of past scenarios. There has been a lot written about the similarities between Covid-19 and the Kansas Flu (I refuse to call it the Spanish flu, which only feeds xenophobic terms for the virus, and most reports indicate it originated on a military base in Kansas). This certainly provides us with some precedent, but social conditions are also decidedly different compared with a hundred years ago. However, we are not strangers to other pandemics: SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1, H1N5, and the Bird Flu have all been players on the virology world stage in our lifetimes. Government officials, including past presidents, have called for better pandemic preparedness. Unfortunately, our memories are short and immediate priorities often push long-term planning to the side. As an interesting anecdote, then-governor Schwarzenegger, back in 2006, helped develop a statewide stockpile of medical supplies in the event of just such a scenario. Unfortunately, when his successor, Jerry Brown, took office in 2011, he faced a huge budget deficit following the economic collapse of 2008, and  cut the program.

That decision by Governor Brown provides us with an example of another common bias. Myopia Bias is another time-related phenomenon and refers to our tendency to focus on too-short timelines when considering costs/benefits of certain decisions. We view the world through our own narrow perspective. “I can’t imagine anyone ever doing that,” or “I could never even think about doing such a thing,” or “I’ve never even thought about that.”We’ve seen this play out with significant consequences in the debate between economic recovery and public health precautions. This bias also leads to an inability to recognize white privilege when it emerges, as we’ve never been forced to notice the water we are swimming in. 

That white privilege has been on display in a number of ways as we fail to adequately address the disproportionately adverse impact the pandemic is having on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) folks, those who are differently abled, those who are housing insecure, and a host of others. These differing experiences have also played out in more direct ways. Xenophobia/ Racial Bias reared its ugly head pretty early into the pandemic with unfounded discrimination directed at Asian-Americans as a result of the early reports of the virus out of China. In general, xenophobia is a fear of difference or something seen as foreign. It has taken on decidedly racist overtones during the myriad hateful and discriminatory attacks across the country. We have also seen this racial bias manifest in the disproportionately high numbers of African Americans testing positive for the virus. 

Whereas much of this hate-filled behavior is not new and has been around since the founding of our country, other behaviors are much newer. In many ways, the pandemic has created a global experiment in behavior change as we ask seven billion people to wear masks and social distance. Inertia Bias makes it hard for us to shift course. When we are comfortable with the path or decisions we are making, then changing course becomes that much more difficult and we resist change, even if it might be for the best. Wearing a mask and standing six feet apart is harder than it sounds! Change is hard, especially when we have been doing something different for so long. 

Status Quo Bias is a phenomenon you are no doubt very familiar with yourself. We have a tendency to avoid change, even when presented with a better option requiring minimal effort. We’ve all been faced with quite a bit of change lately, so the desire to hold onto anything comfortable and/or familiar is strong. As we transition to new ways of living, we’ll continue to see folks resistant to change, even when it is clearly in their best interest. We also tend to see status quo bias emerge when we are overloaded with too many choices. It’s just easier to “stick with what works!” 

With so many choices often available to us, we can easily become overwhelmed. Simplification bias encourages us to consider only a subset of the facts when making decisions because it makes the choice easier to manage. We all want easy answers, and that is certainly true during the current state of affairs. However, thinking that a small drop in the number of cases means we are in the clear fails to take into account a much broader and more complicated set of variables. 

It goes without saying that all of us are busy in new and unique ways. It can be hard to keep abreast of the latest recommendations and state requirements. We are much more likely to rely on our close communities for updates on the latest news and to inform our decisions on how to react. This can provide us with the kind of cognitive shortcuts our overtaxed brains and body desperately need. It can also lead to a bias known as herding.  Herding is very similar to the phenomenon of Group Think and causes us to make decisions based on what we see others doing, regardless of whether we understand their decisions. This can be a beneficial bias when it expedites positive public health behaviors such as social distancing and hand-washing. Unfortunately, it also helps explain why so many people are now quickly foregoing their masks as states begin to reopen and restart their economies. It also explains the irrational run on toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic despite nobody being able to understand it. We want things to return to normal because we are comfortable with that state of being. It feels familiar and we generally know how to operate. It also means we are less likely to fully comprehend and effectively operate within a “new normal” in the short-term. 

Normalcy Bias or negative panic can help explain the slow reactions in the U.S. and other parts of the world to the rising numbers of Covid-19 cases and the early scientific reports suggesting precautions to take. Normalcy bias is our tendency to think things will continue to function the way they always have and therefore underestimate the potential of a disaster and its likely effects. The reports of crowded beaches during spring break despite the warnings to social distance are a prime example of this form of bias at work. 

Everyone on those crowded beaches, both then and now, is optimistic about their chances of remaining healthy. Optimism Bias allows us to underestimate the negative impacts that will occur as the result of future problems. This optimism allows us to avoid concerning ourselves with future outbreaks as well as assume that “it won’t happen to me.” This same optimism meant we did not take the threat of a global pandemic as seriously as we would have otherwise, so we didn’t plan accordingly. The threat did not feel imminent, so we didn’t see the signs around us that it was likely. We didn’t heed the warnings of scientists and public health officials. We wanted the threat to be minimal and we tried to wish that scenario into reality. 

Confirmation Bias is the wishful thinking that allows us to latch onto an idea we want to be true and then see all incoming evidence through that lens. In effect, we only receive the information that confirms what we already think, and avoid or ignore anything that contradicts that assumption. This can have disastrous effects, as in the case of individuals who read the headlines indicating that President Trump was encouraging the drug hydroxychloroquine as a cure for coronavirus and began self-medicating prophylactically. The results were incredibly harmful, and could have been avoided had these individuals objectively considered the wealth of messaging discouraging such behavior. They wanted an easy solution, and a quick fix at that! 

Without question, many individuals are making questionable decisions amid the pandemic. However, a majority of us are taking the steps we are being directed to take. We are staying at home, social-distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands, and monitoring our symptoms. Single-action Bias occurs when the good feeling we get from a single positive act makes us less likely to view the larger problem with a sense of urgency. In other words, we can’t see the forest for the trees. As more and more states are opening businesses up again, we are already seeing the evidence that people are letting down their guard. They took those steps, past-tense, so they feel they should be able to resume business as usual now. The “I can be safe” attitude ignores the lack of control we have over the actions of others and how their actions may impact us.  

As we move forward, there can be no business as usual. There is no “new normal” because there is nothing normal about this situation. However, there are new cultural norms that will no doubt be in place for a long time to come. Working and learning from home has been thrust into the minds of everyone in new and innovative ways and many may never return to physical offices or classrooms again. Shaking hands as a Western greeting may have come to an end, along with the long outdated 9-5 workday. Millions of people have been humanized in new ways through a Zoom connection interrupted with children and pets. 

Most importantly, as we begin to peek over the wall at the other side, we are in a unique position to rewrite the playbook. We can proactively take into account our biases as we make decisions for the immediate future, as well as for generations to come. We arguably have more of a blank slate than anyone thought possible to correct for many of the decision-making behaviors that helped drag us unwittingly down this road in the first place. It’s a rare gift to be able to rewrite the next few chapters of our collective story. I can only hope that our biases don’t give us a bad case of writer’s block. 

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