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.
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.
Dr. Adam Foley
Director- Diversity Education, Assessment, & Outreach
It’s easy to assert that we have transitioned to a “new normal”. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, written it in emails, and uttered it over Zoom calls. I know I have! However, it’s a bit of a misnomer when you stop to think about it. In reality, there is nothing normal about this period in history. We are collectively experiencing a period in our lives that will define a generation and shape our working and living spaces on a much more permanent basis. At the same time, or experiences vary greatly based on identity, and highlight many underlying privileges we may have yet to realize.
One of the biggest changes we have all experienced in varying ways is the shift to an increased reliance on online communication. In some ways, this seems a bit like overkill. We’ve been sending email and using webcams consistently for well over a decade, right? It would be easy to say that our online environment is nothing new, and that we’ve simply upped our usage numbers. That doesn’t accurately reflect the shift in reliance, however. We are experiencing a state of being where physical contact has been taken away not by our choice, but by necessity. The result is a transition to an online environment unlike any we have experienced before. For many, working from home is no longer the relaxing gift on an irregular basis that it once was.
It is thus more important now than ever that we consider the importance of inclusivity as we operate within our online environments. This is not simply a conversation about diversity (broadly defined as the state of difference) but looks to each and every one of our practices as opportunities to consider and implement equitable and inclusive ideas, actions, policies, and relationships.
Although we continue to work towards actualizing full equity and inclusivity in the physical world, our current moment in time offers us a unique opportunity to more fully consider inclusivity in an online environment. Even after we return to campus, many of the online working and learning practices we are currently familiarizing ourselves with will become much more common. With that forward-thinking in mind, I offer some considerations for more fully embracing equity in an online environment.
We can consider the classic journalism questions- Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These questions apply to your working and learning environment, regardless of your job or area of study.
Who is currently involved in the conversation and planning? Who is not represented? Who’s voice is not being heard? Who is responsible for making decisions?
The “Who” is all about identifying, creating, and supporting a broad, inclusive community. We often invite folks to the table simply to feel good about representation, without actually considering which voices need to be heard in order to ensure an equitable and inclusive end product. In an online environment, this question becomes even more important as we consider access to communication channels, and the various ways people may or may not be able to communicate. These considerations have implications for scheduling, frequency, and content as well.
Where do I start?
- Consider adopting a trauma-informed approach to understanding and addressing a new online environment. We can’t not acknowledge that the impact of this pandemic has been substantial from a physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological perspective.
- Be sure to check in regularly with folks in an equitable manner. It’s easy to take for granted the brief drop-in conversations we have regularly until they are taken from us.
What are we discussing? Which problems are we attempting to address? Are we offering examples of diverse content and acknowledging different ways of processing information? Is the language we are using keeping some people away from the conversation, whether intentionally or not?
The “What” is ultimately about deciding who gets to prioritize the work we do, identify needs, and how to communicate. On a broad level, this means considering all aspects of accessibility and adopting an equitable and inclusive UDL (universal design for learning) approach to all of our work. In an online environment, this means not only considering access to translation services, captioning, but also differences in technology that may inhibit a persons’ ability to access information.
Where do I start?
- Utilizing caption and transcription services such as https://www.rev.com/.
- Don’t forget that we can still use email. We’ve quickly shifted to a Zoom-centric lifestyle, but sometimes a simple email will do the trick, and cut down on Zoom-fatigue as well.
- Consider new ways to visualize your work and collaborate, utilizing tools such as Mural, Trello, and Asana.
- Be cognizant of representation when choosing images and readings. This is a wonderful chance to familiarize yourself with some new authors!
What are our work hours? When do we schedule meetings? What impact do other responsibilities have on our time while at home?
This question goes beyond whether or not someone is a morning or an evening person (although, I will 100% always decline an 8AM meeting request, regardless of whether it is face-to-face or over Zoom!). Our concept of time and the “work day” has changed drastically as we have all pivoted in various ways to account for additional responsibilities at home and with our families. Shifting to a focus on thinking about our work as project-based, and thus more dependent on how much time something takes as opposed to when it should be done, can make all the difference. Consider a variety of scheduling tools to allow you to more easily manage your time. More importantly, remember that a 9-5 mindset doesn’t necessarily work well in an online environment (although it certainly does for some folks).
Where do I start?
- Look for opportunities to build trust with those you are working with virtually. This will make the conversations about timing and other commitments much easier and also give you insight into the lives of those you are interacting with daily.
- Consider multiple forms of participation during online meetings and classes.
Location. Location. Location. It’s an adage not just for real estate agents! How are we creating welcoming spaces in an online environment? How are we thinking about access to online environments and the tools for doing so?
Our online “office” looks very different, depending on various other aspects of our lives and identities. We need to consider things like the timing of meetings and classes, as well as expectations about video use and microphone use, when establishing safe, equitable, and inclusive online environments. It’s also important to think about how information is shared and posted. Web accessibility is crucial now more than ever.
Where do I start?
- Think about how you can effectively develop community in an online space.
- Consider where you might go in your current location in order to have a sensitive or confidential conversation. Remember that access to this space might be limited and plan meetings and educational time accordingly.
- Socially-just facilitation is key in any online meeting space.
The child in me loves these 3 letters a great deal. Encouraging equity and inclusivity in online environments begins, in many ways, with these 3 letters. Why? Why are we doing things the way we are? Why are we getting the outcomes we are getting? Why are we asking the questions we are asking?
An online environment is not intended as a copy of our campus spaces. Instead, I encourage you to think of the online environment as a reflection. Although similar in terms of goals and influences, it is an altogether different space. Our shift has presented us with a unique opportunity to ask why with regard to situations and structures that we had long since taken for granted as “just the way things are”. This is at the heart of social justice work and essential to crafting an equitable and inclusive online environment.
Where do I start?
- Provide opportunities for folks to reflect on discussions and other projects. Follow-up with individuals separately in order to gather those “why” questions and be transparent when communicating responses.
- When appropriate, share questions and responses for the benefit of the larger community.
You’ll find this question at the intersection of the rubber and the road. All of the other questions are well and good in the abstract, but we often struggle to integrate them into our daily lives. In our eagerness to keep things flowing, it can be easy to move straight from a to z and skip the rest of the alphabet.
What tools do you already have at your disposal to achieve your new goals? What tools do you not have? How can resources be reallocated? What does this changing online environment mean for the previous responsibilities of the individuals on your team? How might you ensure that everyone has equitable input and opportunity to contribute to this new mission or set of goals? This means reconsidering workflow, curriculum design, assessment, and communication.
Where do I start?
- Consider using encrypted messaging services, such as Signal, to ensure privacy. Be sure to ensure folks have access to a VPN as well, and are familiar with how to use it. You may also consider engaging in private browsing via the Tor Browser.
- Now is a good time to set up a password manager, such as LastPass, which is free to use.
- Check out this Leading Groups Online resource for some great suggestions.
There are a wealth of online tools to help you address these 6 questions in order to design a more inclusive online environment. However, none of these tools can take the place of asking these 6 questions with the intention of arriving at concrete answers. The digital divide has become increasingly apparent, and the current pandemic has laid bare many of the shortcomings of our current societal structure. It has also provided us with an opportunity to intentionally consider how to craft an equitable and inclusive online environment at its foundation. Perhaps then we won’t need to demo everything and start over in a few decades. Start crafting your inclusive online environment now! May the 4th be with you!
Did something you read spark a thought? Consider sharing it as part of the Diverse Voices Project!
The University of Delaware kNOw MORE campaign is a reflection of the efforts by UD faculty, staff, and students to stand up, participate, and help to raise awareness about sexual misconduct and gender-based violence. Our goal is to create and foster an environment where sexual misconduct in any form is unacceptable and survivors are supported.
As a part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month during April, the campaign will be sponsoring a book club as a means of providing open and honest conversation about sexual assault and rape culture more broadly. We will be reading Kate Harding’s widely acclaimed book, “Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture — And What We Can Do About It”.
In Asking for It, Kate Harding combines in-depth research with a frank, no-holds-barred voice to make the case that twenty-first-century America supports rapists more effectively than it supports victims. From institutional failures in higher education to real-world examples of rape culture, Harding offers ideas and suggestions for how we, as a society, can take sexual violence much more seriously without compromising the rights of the accused.
We will be meeting on the following two dates, and would love to have anyone in the university community join us for this important conversation!
4/10/19: 4:00pm- 5:30pm, Perkins Collins Room (Chapters 1-6)
4/25/19: 4:00pm- 5:30pm, Perkins Ewing Room (Chapters 7- 11)
The book can be purchased using the Amazon link below, and is also available from the University of Delaware library as an ebook. We will have a limited number of free copies available as well, and you can indicate your interest below.
UD Library: https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/udel-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1340957
We hope to see you there for a thought-provoking dialogue! All faculty, staff, and students are welcome to attend.
Please join us as we read Michael Eric Dyson’s What Truth Sounds Like and come together as a UD community to engage in meaningful dialogue around issues of race in America. It is of the utmost importance, now more than ever, that we continue to look for opportunities to engage in dialogue as we look to shape the world around us with inclusive excellence in mind. UD’s commitment to inclusive excellence calls on each of us to thoughtfully consider the role we play in our community as educators and leaders. Our time together will provide an opportunity to engage with folks from all corners of the university and consider where we’ve been and where we are going.
Registration is open to anyone at the University of Delaware, and a limited number of books are available for those in need.
Register here: https://goo.gl/forms/G4JR82GFvlXF6zId2
We will meet on the following dates:
2/28/19 3PM- 4:30PM- Perkins Ewing Room (Chapters 1-3, pp. 1-86)
3/27/19 12PM- 1PM- Perkins Gallery Room (Chapters 4-6, pp. 87-184)
5/1/19 3PM- 4:30PM- Perkins Collins Room (Chapters 7-9, pp. 185-278)
As part of the historic 50th anniversary of the considerable Civil Rights events in 1968, the Office of Equity & Inclusion, in collaboration with the Office of the Vice Provost for Diversity & Inclusion, will be hosting a facilitated book club conversation during the Fall 2018 Semester. We will be reading Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award Winning text, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
Meeting times over the course of the Fall Semester: 9/27 @ 3 P.M.: Chapters 1-12 (Perkins Gallery Room)
10/23 @ 12 P.M.: Chapters 13-26 (Perkins Collins Room)
12/3 @ 3P.M.: Chapters 27-37 (Perkins Collins Room)
Buy on Amazon: https://goo.gl/TZ5jBc
Learn More: https://www.ibramxkendi.com/stamped-from-the-beginning/