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Ancient Brains Vs. a Modern Pandemic

Improving how we consume information in a time of crisis

We are being bombarded with an overwhelming volume of information related to the COVID-19 pandemic - current infection and mortality rates, actions you should be taking to protect yourself, status of potential treatments, and much more. Some of the information is accurate and helpful and some of it is false and potentially harmful. How you choose to consume the information, evaluate it, and respond to it can make a big difference in how well you navigate your situation during the crisis.

As a speaker on decision integrity and performance, I immerse myself in the subject of self-illusions, mental shortcuts and cognitive fallacies. Still, I am always amazed when I see people make decisions and behave in ways that go against their own goals and values, clearly due to the outsized influence of these subversive impulses. (Oh, I do it too, it’s just more difficult to see our own irrational behavior!)

To improve how we make decisions and behave during this time of upheaval, it’s important that we make good judgments about the information we consume. That will give you the peace of mind and confidence that comes with knowing your beliefs and decisions are well-informed.

Cognitive Biases

Our brains have ancient built-in mechanisms that are hard-wired to keep us safe. They keep us constantly on the lookout for potential threats so we can avoid or defeat them. (Avoidance is the safest and preferred response.) These mental apparatus are beyond our conscious control and they influence us at the subconscious level. Usually we are clueless of what they are doing or how they are affecting us.

To keep us safe, our ancient brain functions give us a natural preference for

  • Certainty, because the feeling of uncertainty slows us down

  • The status quo, because the unfamiliar is full of uncertain potential threats

  • Fear and suspicion, because it is safer to make negative assumptions about others and the future than to be optimistic

While these mechanisms were vital in the harsh wilds in which our four-legged ancestors lived, 21st century civilization is a different and much safer environment. We don’t need to be on constant alert and these can actually sabotage our own efforts to be effective and successful as we navigate our modern world.

When the subconscious brain influences us to act irrationally or against our own interests, these hidden impulses are called cognitive biases. They distort our decision making and keep us from making the choices that are best for us.

Pandemic responses

The COVID-19 pandemic has quickly and dramatically affected virtually all aspects of our lives, most notably our livelihoods and our health. How we handle the challenges and our initial reactions to them may have a bigger impact on us than the events themselves.

The Feeling of Certainty

As a mentalist, in some of my performance pieces I give the illusion of clairvoyance - the ability to see the future. (Keep in mind this is entertainment - I do not claim supernatural abilities.) Audiences love these demonstrations because we can imagine how awesome it would be to accurately and consistently predict the future. If you indulge in sports betting, the stock market, or weather forecasting, clairvoyance is particularly appealing.

With the pandemic, we desperately want to see the future.

  • How long will these social distancing and lockdown mandates last?

  • When can I go back to work?

  • How many people will get sick and/or die?

  • Will the economy rebound and if so, when?

The fact that we currently have no certain answers for these is driving us crazy!

Humans want to be able to know what’s coming. It gives us the feeling of certainty and a sense of control. Our ancient brains love the feeling of knowing the future because the opposite - uncertainty - is scary, slows us down, and makes us feel vulnerable.

Each time we see or hear the opinion of a pundit or expert about what will happen next in this pandemic, we are inclined to believe it because it gives us that feeling of certainty. The primitive animal brain doesn’t care if what we feel certain about is true, it just wants us to feel that it is so we can make decisions faster and stay safe.

This makes us prone to believe false information, and there is never a shortage of that. People and organizations that get paid for your attention (clicks and eyeballs) will tell you what they think will happen next because they know we will tune in. And we will because we want to feel like we know what will happen. Even if there is little or any evidence to support the prediction, we latch onto it and set our emotions to it.

Unless you or someone you know has personally contracted the virus, everything you “know” about it is the result of a) information you received from one or more sources and, b) whether you believe that information to be true.

What information do you choose to believe? What sources of information do you deem credible? Some powerful cognitive biases can influence those decisions.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is increasingly prevalent in the age of social media and 24/7 information, especially when there is a hot current issue like an election or health crisis. This bias is demonstrated when we consume only information that supports what we already believe and ignore information that contradicts it.

Today we have more control over which information we consume than ever, often making those choices quickly and without conscious consideration. If you believe the coronavirus threat is overblown by the media and causing unwarranted hysteria, you will look for websites and articles that support that opinion. Likewise, if you believe things are much worse than the government and media are telling us, you tend to look for articles and stories that support that view.

Negativity Bias

Our brains are configured to pay more attention to negative information than positive. Studies show that brain activity is higher when we think negative thoughts compared to positive thoughts. From an ancient brain perspective it makes sense - focusing on the negative helps us know what to avoid to stay safe.

When it comes to the news, negative stories get more readers and viewers than positive ones, which is why they are more prevalent. Look at any of the popular free news websites (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc.) and see how many stories are about somebody “slamming” or “blasting” or “unloading on” somebody else. Or about the terrible things that will happen if a particular candidate gets elected. And of course, stories about tragedies and malfeasance get top billing as well. Those are what we read, watch ,and click on.

Naturally, we also consume more negative stories about the pandemic and projections about what will happen next or how long it will take to get back to normal. We certainly want to believe the less dire predictions and to have hope, but we can’t help reading and watching and believing the worst case scenarios. It’s as if we are attracted to misery and we can’t help it!

I fell victim to this recently, getting a bit freaked out when I read that it could take 18-24 months for my bread and butter as a speaker - conferences and conventions - to come back. My family and I will starve by then! In reality, that is unrealistic and most smart people think we will be back up much sooner.

Halo Effect

Another cognitive bias that leads us astray in this challenging time is the halo effect. This occurs when we like or respect someone, such as a celebrity (they were great in that movie you liked), and so we agree with their opinions regardless of their experience or expertise in that domain.

Take celebrity endorsements, for instance. A famous baseball player recommends a certain brand of paint. You like him because he helped your favorite team win a World Series, so you are now more likely to buy that paint. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Of course not.

When it comes to media and news, you may agree with a certain celebrity, politician, show host, or pundit because their content usually aligns with your ideology - left, right or otherwise. Then when they talk about this crisis and how it will play out, you are more likely to believe what they say. That’s not a sound decision on your part unless they also happen to be experts in the infectious disease field.

We can do better

To make better decisions, especially about what and who you believe, engage in “second level thinking.” Before you make a judgment on some new information or forecast, take a moment to think again. Analyze the data. Evaluate what might really be going on in that primitive brain of yours.

  • Are you wanting to believe it because it aligns with your current beliefs?

  • Do reliable sources (smart people) back up the information or projection?

  • Are you believing the most negative possibility? If so, is it unrealistic?

  • Do you believe it because it is what you want to hear, even though it may not be supported by evidence?

  • Do you believe it because you like the person saying it?

  • Is the information coming from a source that may be promoting an ideological viewpoint or agenda rather than an evidence-based perspective?

By considering these questions, you can develop a more realistic outlook and make better decisions. Seek out credible sources of information, even if they might disagree with your worldview. Be open to all available evidence. Is there consensus among the majority of experts on a topic? For example, do people who have spent decades studying infectious diseases agree on where things are likely headed?

Finally, embrace the uncertainty. We are in uncharted waters and no one knows exactly what will transpire. Think about all potential outcomes and the realistic probabilities of each based on expert consensus. Then plan for each outcome accordingly as best you can.

Remember, there is no crystal ball.

Think well and be well,

- Steve

Want to learn more about improving your thinking and decision making?


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