Cognitive bias and impact of COVID-19

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Even if you were hiding in a bunker, the relentless media coverage of coronavirus would have probably found a path to you. We live in an era of massive bandwidth and the media has to find stories if they are to survive the competition. If they can’t be found, then it will turn to speculation and headlines that are overly dramatic in order to get the ‘clickbait’ they need. 

Meanwhile our brains must process this information, true and false. Part of the problem of something like coronavirus is that it’s still in the discovery stage but at the same time our brain wants answers and certainty. Not everyone will be able to process information logically and rationally; even the most level-headed of people can get overwhelmed by this current level of ‘mediavirus’ particularly because it’s hard working out what is true and what isn’t, in this largely unknown landscape we’re facing.

While some people will apply critical thinking and try to make sense of what is real and important, others won’t think so clearly. Even if they were given reputable scientific sources to read, they will still perceive the information differently. So, while on one hand we have people going about their lives as normally as possible, at the other end of the spectrum, a fair chunk of the population believe the sky is falling. 

The reason for this is that we all, whether we like it or not, have cognitive biases that can decide what we think even before we’ve been informed and digested the information. Yep, you read it right. Think of cognitive bias as a set of rules we apply, but without knowing we’re doing it. A set of rules that can help in some situations but can also lead us down the garden path and into a rabbit hole. Daniel Khaneman,
renowned author of Thinking Fast and Slow says “We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available.”

There are many forms of Cognitive Bias but here are some key ones that are worth thinking about right now.

Confirmation Bias- When we favor information that already confirms our existing set of beliefs while ignoring any evidence that will counter those arguments. We only look for evidence that supports our pre-existing belief. A climate change activist will only look for information that supports what they believe is happening and ignore any other statistics. 

Attentional bias- This happens when we pay attention to some things while simultaneously ignoring others. Right now, for example, you can bet there are a high proportion of people who are totally focused on scare stories in the media, many of which have no basis. These same people are probably not tuned into the useful information that relates to how we can use good hygiene to protect ourselves. 

Actor-Observer Bias: This happens when we attribute our own actions to external causes while attributing other people's behaviors to internal causes. For example, you may look at the spread of coronavirus as being other people’s fault, but actually you have no evidence of this. Meanwhile should you get a dose of coronavirus, you’re likely to look for someone to blame rather than accept that no one person is responsible. 

Anchoring Bias: This occurs when we rely too heavily on the very first piece of information we learn. We stay ‘anchored’ to that piece of information, despite new and more current information being released. This could manifest as a thought like “COVID-19 originated from China, so therefore we have to avoid everything related to China, including Chinese restaurants and shops. It all based in China”. 

It is important to be aware of these cognitive biases and how they influence and skew the ways in which we process information about COVID-19 and other world events.

We live in a world where we can access the news 24/7. But how much of this is time-wasting speculation and fear mongering? Most importantly, is it useful? While you’re practising good hygiene, now might be a good time to ask, “Am I reading the information from reputable sources or am I basing my decisions on rumors or gossip? How much of this information may be fueling a cognitive bias, like the ones mentioned above? 

If you find that you are becoming overwhelmed by media consumption, we suggest you take a big step back. Once daily is more than enough to access the news. Don’t keep checking into the internet or your phone. This is not a case of FOMO. You need to look after your brain as well as your body or you’ll end up in a state of high anxiety.  It’s also about living your life and getting on with it instead of feeding your biases and fueling anxiety. Switch off from the constant stream of news and focus your attention on other issues. Remember to live in the now, because that is all everyone has. 

Watch your favourite film. Read a novel, go walking or listen to music. These pleasant distractions assist with managing our stress levels and help our general wellbeing. They can even help increase our immune system so it’s win-win. 

If you do find it difficult to turn off from current events or if you find yourself feeling anxious or worried, please call Converge International and speak to one of our consultants. You do not have to manage these issues alone.


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