The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered life around the world, and with it has come a plethora of misinformation, confusion, and uncertainty. Because the virus is so new, there’s a lot that scientists just don’t know about it yet, resulting in many misconceptions. Politicians and social media have played a big part in spreading misinformation. President Trump has spread false statistics which minimized the death toll, incorrectly claimed that children were almost immune from the disease, and commented about injecting disinfectant to combat the disease. In the wake of all this conflicting information, it’s no wonder that there are various misconceptions about the disease, and our cognitive biases may be partially to blame.
Human psychology is extremely complex, and at any given time, there may be a variety of cognitive biases acting on our ability to process information and make informed decisions. Below are a few of the biases which may have particular significance in the context of the coronavirus.
The backfire effect is the tendency to defend deeply ingrained beliefs and reject information that contradicts them.
Belief bias is the tendency to give more weight to an argument that supports one’s own beliefs instead of focusing on the actual validity of the arguments.
Confirmation bias is the inclination to seek out information that confirms one’s own beliefs.
Cognitive biases contribute to the persistence of misinformation. People tend to be incredibly loyal to their beliefs, overlooking and rejecting anything that contradicts them. This approach, however, is dangerous, especially with an evolving situation like a pandemic.
For example, if someone believes that children are immune to the coronavirus, the backfire effect can make it extremely difficult to change their mind. They are likely to reject evidence that children can and have contracted the virus, saying such facts are fabricated or dismissing cases as extreme outliers. Since they don’t believe children are at risk, they might push for children to return to school and fail to ensure schools have appropriate safety measures.
Belief bias, meanwhile, bolsters people’s confidence in dangerous mindsets. If a person believes America is the greatest nation, they may struggle to accept that America needs to improve its management of the coronavirus. They’re more likely to believe the President’s false claims than scientific experts calling for policy changes. They may not even consider the virus a serious threat, leading them to ignore public health guidelines.
Similarly, confirmation bias causes people to actively seek out information that supports their own beliefs and ignore information that may contradict them. If a person believes that masks are useless, they’ll search out evidence on why masks are flawed and ignore health experts that encourage mask-wearing. A person may search “the problems with masks” and end up with only information that supports their point of view. This reinforces preexisting beliefs and encourages risky behavior.
The coronavirus is a complex issue, and much uncertainty and conflicting information surrounds it. It is also a developing situation, and scientists don’t yet know everything about the virus. As scientific knowledge develops, it’s important to stay updated and form beliefs based on the most recent information, and to be willing to discard faulty beliefs based on outdated information. Finally, it’s essential to check your own cognitive biases when determining your opinions about the virus. Ask yourself why you believe the things you do. Is it because it is the most logically valid argument, or could it be explained by one of the cognitive biases listed above? Seek out unbiased information or information which contradicts your own beliefs, and try to assess the validity of each argument. The first step to overcoming cognitive biases is to simply be aware of them.