The cognitive imbalance that broke us during the pandemic

The human brain is a wonderful machine capable of handling complex information. To help us understand information quickly and make quick decisions, it has learned to use shortcuts, called “heuristics”. Most of the time, these shortcuts help us make good decisions. But sometimes they lead to cognitive imbalances.

Answer this question as quickly as you can without reading further: which European country was hardest hit by the pandemic?

If you answered “Italy”, you are wrong. But you are not alone. Italy is not even in the top ten European countries with the number of confirmed COVID cases or deaths.

It’s easy to understand why people might give the wrong answer to this question – as it happened when I was playing this game with friends. Italy was the first European country to be hit by the pandemic, or at least that’s what we were told in the beginning. And our perception of the situation was formed early on with a focus on Italy. Later, of course, other countries were hit worse than Italy, but Italy is the name that stuck in our heads.

The trick with this game is to ask people to respond quickly. When I gave friends time to think or look for evidence, they often came up with a different answer – some of them quite accurate. Cognitive biases are shortcuts, and shortcuts are often used when resources are limited – in this case, the resource is time.

This particular bias is called “anchoring bias”. It occurs when we rely too much on the first piece of information we receive about a topic and fail to update our perception when we receive new information.

As we have shown in a recent work, anchoring biases can take on more complex forms, but in all of them one property of our brain is essential: it is easier to stick to the information we have stored first and try to make our decisions and perceptions based on that point of reference – and often not too far.

Dataflod

The COVID pandemic is remarkable for many things, but as a data scientist, the one that stands out to me is the amount of data, facts, statistics, and numbers available to examine.

It was quite exciting to be able to regularly check the numbers online on portals like the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and Our World in Data, or just tune in to almost any radio or TV station or news site to see the latest COVID statistics. Many TV channels introduced program segments specifically to report these numbers daily.

Johns Hopkins data portal

Screenshot of Johns Hopkins COVID tracker with lots of charts, maps and numbers.
A wealth of COVID data.
Johns Hopkins

However, the fire hose of COVID data that came to us is not compatible with the speed at which we can use and handle this data in a meaningful way. Our brain occupies the anchors, the first wave of numbers or other information, and sticks to them.

Later, when challenged by new numbers, it takes some time to switch to the new anchor and update. This eventually leads to data fatigue when we stop being aware of any new input and we also forget the initial information. After all, what was the safe length of social distancing in the UK: one or two meters? Oh no, 1.5 meters or 6 feet. But six feet is 1.8 meters, right? Forget it.

The problems with COVID communication are not limited to the statistics that describe the spread and spread of the pandemic or the safe distance we should keep to others. Initially, we were told that “flock immunity” occurs when 60% -70% of the population has acquired immunity either through infection or vaccination.

Later, with more studies and analyzes, this figure was more accurately predicted to be around 90% -95%, which is meaningfully larger than the original figure. But as shown in our study, the role of the first issue can be profound, and a simple update was not enough to remove it from people’s minds. This could to some extent explain the hesitation with vaccines that has been observed in many countries; after all, if enough other people are vaccinated, then why should we be bothered to risk the vaccine’s side effects? Do not forget that “enough” may not be enough.

The point here is not that we should stop the flow of information or ignore statistics and numbers. Instead, when dealing with information, we should learn to consider our cognitive limitations. If we were to go through the pandemic again, I would be more careful about how much data exposure I got to avoid data fatigue. And when it comes to decisions, I would spend time not forcing my brain into shortcuts – I would check the latest data instead of relying on what I thought I knew. This way, my risk of cognitive bias would be minimized.

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