Don’t Let Cognitive Biases Drive You Into Public Health Risk Behavior

Now that the “new normal” has begun to feel, well, okay , how can we ensure that we remain vigilant about our vital public health behavior? Handwashing, physical distancing, and wearing masks won’t be any less important anytime soon, but dating can be lazy, and when it comes to a pandemic, it’s … pretty bad.

Maintaining our good behavior can be about understanding and considering our own cognitive biases and the strategies we can use to overcome them.

A new study by The Lancet highlights eight pitfalls in judgment that can lead to risky public health behavior. As research doctor Donald Redelmeier and behaviorist Eldar Shafir explain, the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has lasted so long may lead some of us to assume that the worst of threats is over, which it is not.

Conversely, some of us may be so focused on the coronavirus threat that we ignore other physical and mental health risks, from the long-term effects of isolation to the dangers of exercising without the proper technique or equipment.

Redelmeier and Shafir created a table listing all eight pitfalls, as well as strategies to ensure that these cognitive biases do not affect our judgments and behavior:

Dana Rose Garfin, Faculty of Nursing. Sue and Bill Gross (University of California, Irvine) agree with Redelmeyer and Shafir’s assessment. “My colleagues and I are currently doing some research on these topics,” Garfin told me.

Garfin explains that since the COVID-19 pandemic no longer seems like new, we may be tempted to loosen up the behaviors we took on seven weeks ago, even if that is precisely the behavior that can help protect us and those around us. people. When self-isolation works, for example, it produces results that lead people to ask why we are still isolating. “It’s causing excitement in the community,” says Garfin. “People are starting to say that we don’t need to do this.

And there is another important cognitive bias that The Lancet eliminated from its chart: confirmation bias: our tendency to prioritize our own preconceptions. “People pay attention to information that confirms what they already believe,” explains Garfin. If people are looking for news that confirms their personal beliefs about coronavirus transmission, herd immunity, or national reactivation strategies, they can often find many articles and social media posts confirming their beliefs – and they may not pay as much attention to whether this information is from a reputable source.

Even well-studied and well-prepared information that refutes a particular theory may not always shake a particularly ingrained belief. “This is an interesting phenomenon,” says Garfin. “Conflicting information makes [your belief in] what you believe in even stronger .”

What does this mean for all of us now, in the seventh week of self-isolation and physical distancing? Well, we can’t fail our guards just yet. We still need to isolate ourselves, avoid unnecessary exits, stay six feet away from people who are not in our immediate homes, wear masks in public, and practice good hand washing habits. On the other hand, we cannot be careful enough to forget about other threats to our health and well-being. (As Redelmeier and Schafer remind us, we don’t want to go to the hospital right now for any reason.)

In other words: stay alert, but avoid over-worrying. Stay connected and balance even when you stay at home. Don’t look for articles and Twitter discussions that suggest you might be the exception to the rule, because you’re likely to find something that tells you exactly what you want to hear and that might prompt you to engage in risky behavior. which can harm both yourself and others.

Basically, we cannot treat our “new normal” as if it is normal.


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