CHAPTER 9. Biases here and there: Covid Edition.
You open the cupboard. There’s no coffee. It is a crucial necessity that you have your morning cup. How could you not notice there was no coffee? You quickly get dressed and go out to get it. But there are a lot of people on the streets, increasingly more and more. Weren’t we in quarantine? What are they doing going out? How irresponsible! Why aren’t they staying at home? Why aren’t they wearing masks? I have an important reason to be out. I need coffee. Or I have to walk my dog. Or I only went out for a 15 minute bike ride and I don’t need a mask. Insert any possible reason here. The fact is that we justify our reasons for being out on the streets, but we don’t justify everybody else’s reasons. This is called “correspondence bias” or “attributive error” in social psychology. We say that others behave in a certain way or that they are crazy or irresponsible without sufficient information. In other words we attribute their negative behavior to internal factors, without thinking that the cause of them behaving in this way could be influenced by external factors ( they may have run out of coffee too).
We experience biases everyday. But in our current situation in which we are all extra vigilant of our own behavior and thoughts, they become almost tangible.
For example, the retrospective bias makes us think that everything that is happening with Covid was very predictable. And what is worse we blame ourselves: ”Why didn’t I take that job in February? “What was I thinking when I thought I could plan that awesome Summer vacation this year?” Although there is no way we could have predicted this, if we look back, we can analyze all the reasons that were there and were ignored. I mean, if it happened to Wuhan why wouldn’t it happen to our city? The big disadvantage is that we feel incompetent, when in reality there was no way of knowing that this year we were supposed to save more or make fewer plans.
Biases are mistaken judgements or distortions of perceived sensations or information. But even though they are erroneous, they are very useful. They are evolutionary developments that have helped humans to make swift judgements and respond quickly to situations that due to their complexity, would otherwise take a long time to decipher. So they’re sort of “cognitive shortcuts” to better navigate the world.
Have you felt nostalgia for your pre Covid life? Even though we hated to be stuck in traffic or packed together like sardines in public transportation on our way to work in our offices with colleagues that we didn’t like that much, and having to eat badly and in a hurry; we are all missing that normality a little. As if our office lives were dripping with honey. On this page we can even play typical office sounds which we hated and now miss. This idea that the past was always better is also a bias and it is called “positive reconstruction of the past”. This cognitive shortcut, for example, is useful as a means of survival to minimize negative or even traumatizing experiences in the past. This is why we tend to romanticize the past.
Finally, think of how governments and their actions towards Covid are judged, but not from the standpoint of what they are doing, but how we already thought of them. If we liked them, we like them more now. If we were against them, we find reasons to judge their decisions harshly. This is the confirmation bias, which has no other use than to confirm preconceptions. Recognizing this could help us to be more critical and objective towards decisions made in circumstances such as these.
As we were saying all of them are useful. But it is also useful to recognize them as errors and to dispose of them. In the first example , thinking that all of those who were out on the streets were there because ( like you) they needed to buy something essential, or simply because lockdown has been hard, will help us to be more understanding and empathetic. We have already talked about the importance of putting ourselves in others’ shoes. In a social crisis such as the current one, connecting with what others are feeling and relating it to our own circumstances ( which believe me, what others are going through, especially now is very similar to what you are feeling) is key to avoiding social anger towards something that is out of our hands.