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Wait, what? (Cognitive Stress in a Pandemic)

I would wager most of us agree that the uncertainties we’ve experienced together in 2020 — a worldwide pandemic, along with social unrest and contentious national elections here in the US — have contributed significantly to our stress levels. Socioeconomic stress, emotional or even physical stress, and…while not always top of mind…cognitive stress.

Unsurprisingly, cognitive stress can compromise our reasoning skills and make us more susceptible to cognitive bias as we try to sort through disheartening, confusing or even contradictory messages (including both misinformation and, disappointingly, disinformation). It can create a sort of bunker mentality which only reinforces entrenched thinking, as humans revert to more primal instincts and tribalism in pursuit of self-preservation. Sound familiar?

We all have certain philosophical preconceptions, values and beliefs — even those of us who have long cultivated (and secretly prided ourselves on) objectivity and dispassionate, Spock-like logical reasoning skills. I count myself among them, and yet I can find myself succumbing to cognitive bias if I’m anything less than alert, later experiencing a Homer Simpson-like “D’oh!” moment of retrospective epiphany.

There are many types of cognitive bias, of course. Confirmation bias is one of the easiest to recognize, and one of the most common. It occurs when we favor ideas that confirm our existing beliefs or assumptions — what we think we already know. For example, my wife tends to build to her point in a conversation, rather than start with it. This is opposite my style, which is to make the point, then back it up only if needed.

As a result, I can get a bit impatient in our conversations, waiting for her to get to the point. I sometimes jump to a conclusion about where she’s going, based on what I already believe she’s trying to say, only to find out after she finishes her sentence, that wasn’t where she was going at all…D’oh!

This sort of mistake can result in some rolling eyes, but after 30 years, our relationship can withstand my all-to-frequent mistakes. However, on a societal level, our social bonds appear not as strong as they used to be. Certainly, this is true here in the US. The erosion of these bonds has been a long term consequence of changing geographic, demographic and economic factors, as well as more direct actions by various parties to exploit these trends, and only seems to have accelerated during the stress of 2020.

We’ve seen tribalism escalate, and have seen deep divides in, or challenges to, core “values and beliefs” which used to be largely shared here in the US. Or at least appeared to be shared for those of us of “a certain age” and demographic background.

Under these circumstances, and in a still-dangerous pandemic, the consequences of succumbing to cognitive bias can have serious ramifications — for health practices, public policies and for our economic wellbeing. Beyond the aforementioned confirmation bias, here are three more cognitive biases I’ve often seen in 2020:

1. Availability Bias

Relying on a personal anecdote (or a recent broadcast) in making a decision rather than stepping back to engage critical thinking skills in a thoughtful evaluation of content and context.

2. (Fundamental) Attribution Error

Assuming behavior is due to one visible characteristic rather than one less visible, or an unknown set of circumstances. Examples can include stereotyping and stigmatization, or racism and prejudice. It may also involve wrongly equating correlation to causation, drawing a false conclusion from merely circumstantial evidence.

3. In-Group Bias (Tribalism)

We all have a tendency to make more favorable judgments about someone from our own group versus someone from another group. We’ve evolved to be this way, socially, as a means of preserving the tribe or validating kinship.

It doesn’t help that lobbyists, advertisers, media pundits and politicians are constantly exploiting these and other cognitive biases to persuade us to subscribe to their points of view or buy into their agendas. Today in the US, we face a perfect storm of a global pandemic, social unrest, an election year and near-continuous media messages (both social and traditional). It can create significant cognitive stress.

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Photo by Gemma | That's Her Business on Unsplash

Consequently, at a time when we need to make the best-informed decisions possible for ourselves and society as a whole, we may in fact be more inclined to miscalculate risks, hold inaccurate perceptions about ourselves and others (or their intentions), and consequently behave in ways or make decisions which aren’t in our individual or collective best interests.

I suppose this should be less surprising than it has been to me, as one of those planet Vulcan logical types. People are constantly trying to balance the quality of a decision with the speed of making a decision. They’re also trying to balance self-interest with societal-interest. These dynamic tensions are of course exacerbated in times of stress and uncertainty, and I think we’d all agree that in 2020, we’ve been in a time of stress and uncertainty.

So, I’m trying to take time to pause before deciding or acting — am I being rational, fully cognitive and objective, or am I letting stress-induced cognitive bias sway me to decide, say or do something irrational or simply wrong? I’ve adopted a three-step mantra:

1) Listen or read carefully. Separate signal from noise — facts from manipulative or exploitive messaging. Consider the source!

2) Think clearly and critically. Emotion is great for motivation, but logic should rule cogitation.

3) Act rationally and responsibly. Think through consequences — don’t only do the right thing, do it the right way.

We’ll continue to make mistakes, learn and move forward — it’s our human condition — but perhaps we can make fewer mistakes, maybe even prevent a few, or at least learn faster from the ones we do make. Here’s to a less cognitively stressed 2021!

About the author:

Bob Walton is a healthcare and technology sector executive in the US, currently on sabbatical advising various emerging health technology businesses and investors. His passions are broad, encompassing not only US healthcare reform but space exploration (having been an impressionable youngster during both the original Star Trek series and the Apollo missions) and oceanography (having grown up watching Jacques Cousteau adventures and later, receiving a Master’s degree from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami). Find him on Linkedin.

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