(October 18, 2020 / JNS) Explanations abound as to why certain Israelis, especially in certain communities, are not taking proper health precautions during this pandemic. These explanations are only partially correct as they describe the symptoms but not the source of this flagrant behavior, which occurs despite the epidemiology evidence, law enforcement and social pressure to act otherwise.
Beneath the surface, the real cause and reinforcement of this behavior lie in how we process the information we receive. I spent many years as a jury consultant in the United States employing social psychology to understand how and why people make the decisions they do and in what way this directly impacts their behavior.
It turns out that decisions are not “fact-based.” None of them. As I have taught trial lawyers, “facts follow feelings.” And these feelings reflect the way we process inputs from people and media and then decide—unconsciously for the most part—what we believe is true and hence our response. Throwing out facts, such as the daily death toll or the number of patients on respirators, will do little to change these feelings.
This phenomenon is the direct result of the biases we all have. Everyone has biases—reflecting our values and beliefs—and these are the filters through which we see and confirm our reality while rejecting contradictory information and feedback. There are many ways we are conditioned to inculcate these biases, however, I do not want to address the sources of bias but rather its impact on attitudes and behavior.
Cognitive biases are hard at work all the time, directing our thought and behavior. These preconceived ideas and stereotypes help us in a more personal way—they reduce anxiety by creating certainty. When confronting this “cognitive dissonance” between our beliefs and reality, we try to reconcile the tension and “bridge the gap” by employing these biases. This is natural and the result of thousands of years of social and human development. This is a broad topic, beyond the purview of a short article, but let me just highlight a few of these biases to get the point across. You can test yourself as you read them if you think you are engaging in this behavior as well.
Survivor bias: This bias manifests in areas such as extreme sports and investing—in fact anywhere you cannot easily “interview” someone who failed. For example, when I decided to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, I could only interview people who survived the climb. One cannot ask someone that died attempting the summit what they would have done differently. So in evaluating whether it was risky to climb, I naturally overemphasized my chances for success and underrated the risks. How could I not, since I never interviewed anyone who failed? Consequently, it is a miracle that I escaped serious injury and death during my climb.
Or look at business magazines, and you will see that for the most part, they cover successful exploitation of opportunity. They usually do not interview people who now live in a cardboard box because they took too many risks with their investments. It is the same with COVID-19; one only meets and knows survivors. Only once did I read of someone who attended a “COVID infection party” in the United States—on her deathbed, she admitted that “maybe I made a mistake” going to this event.
Survivor bias has a profound impact on our evaluation of risk regarding our behavior during a pandemic.
The result of survivor bias is that we underestimate the downside and overestimate the success of risky behavior. You can see that this is happening big-time with COVID-19. It’s one thing when it’s your dad who dies at 55, but something else when you have no strong personal attachment to those that die of the virus. Without that personal connection, survivor bias is amplified.
Confirmation bias: Confirmation bias, as its name suggests, refers to our tendency to accentuate information and experiences that confirm our prior decisions or opinions. The classic example is seeing lots of your exact model of car all over the road after you buy one. Confirmation bias is even more potent when combined with survivor bias since you will see information in the press, discussions with friends and social media to support your survivor bias conclusion. It is a toxic combination.
Halo bias: We tend to ascribe more weight to the opinions of individuals we follow or admire. That is just the way we are built as social animals. And if the leader also claims or is recognized as having expertise then the halo and expert biases together make for almost an immovable opinion.
There are many biases to explore, but let me just mention two others: Suggestibility and Overconfidence. The latter refers to people’s belief that they have “figured it out” better than others, while the former refers to the strong impact on you of the opinions of those within your social circle. You can just imagine how these two biases come into play with the behaviors we are all seeing during this epidemic.
So how do we combat these biases, as they are having a severe impact on societal cohesion and behavior? First, we cannot eliminate biases; they are embedded into the cognitive model of human beings. The key is awareness and education. To be made aware by the media, leaders and our social circle that we are all biased, and to treat information we perceive as “absolute” with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Even though the long-term fix is awareness and education, there is a straightforward way to combat the most serious biases—Survivor and Confirmation. These biases can be significantly reduced by releasing the photos, family stories (who they left behind) and biographies of those who have died of COVID-19. These stories should be published and distributed in every newspaper and be accessible online, via social media and, in the haredi world, on their pashkevilim or wall posters.
These stories should be updated weekly, with the incremental death profiles distributed in every paper and medium. The Health Ministry has so far refused to do this due to patient privacy concerns, but given this is a national emergency, the Knesset should make an exception. Of course, families should have the ability to “opt out,” but I believe few will do so, as they would want all of Israel to know of their family’s loss.
Samuel H. Solomon is engaged in human rights advocacy in defense of democracies and has founded several non-profit organizations to address this issue. He has an MBA in finance, a master’s in philosophy, and theological ordination.
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