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COVID-19: how to deal with our cognitive biases

Humanity is in a battle against SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In combating this invisible enemy, we should recognise our inherent cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking which affect how we make decisions and judgements.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed these biases.

Cognitive biases often lead us to irrational behaviours such as hoarding toilet paper.

Others may even make illogical decisions like ingesting fish tank cleaner containing chloroquine to prevent coronavirus infection.

People who act irrationally have been labelled as “covidiots”.

But did you know most of us are prone to some form of cognitive bias?

There are three key cognitive biases we have witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Action bias

People often believe actions tend to solve (COVID-19) problems. When various world leaders gave national addresses to allay people’s fear of “food shortages”, some people started to panic buy.

Despite assurances of a sufficient and stable supply, citizens started to hoard toilet paper and other food items.

We often think by doing something such as stockpiling our home supplies, we may mitigate unknown risks related to COVID-19. However, by crowding in the supermarkets, we may instead be placing ourselves at higher risk of infection.

2. Fear of missing out (FOMO) and the bandwagon effect

Additionally, images of long snaking queues and emptied shelves could have caused unnecessary FOMO anxiety. This can lead to the bandwagon effect – the tendency to blindly follow the actions of others.

If we perceive others are increasingly engaging in a behaviour, we become more likely to do so, especially more so during a crisis.

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3. Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search and acknowledge information that supports our beliefs.

We make preconceived beliefs on various aspects of the coronavirus and search for relevant information that validates them. As trained scientists, we have to ensure we interpret data accurately. Our interpretation of data should not be affected by what we choose to believe.

Strategies to think clearly during the COVID-19 pandemic

1. Apply slow thinking

Our slow thinking is deliberate and require more mental energy. The slow thinking system is activated when we are faced with big decisions such as buying a home and choosing our life partner.

We can tap into our slow thinking if we pause and write down reasons against, and in support, of our impending decisions. This cautious thinking allows us to consider the problem carefully, as well as its long-term implications.

On the other hand, we apply our fast thinking when we decide which gendered washroom to en

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