Most people believe themselves to be less at risk from COVID-19 than others similar to them, according to a recent UCL survey conducted in the U.S.
- A study surveying 1,145 people in the U.S. found that the majority of people believed that they were less likely to catch the virus than the average person, regardless of the person's age or gender.
- The most effective way to counter the damaging effects of cognitive bias in the context of COVID-19 may be by calling on empathy in individuals.
- The dangerous effects of optimism bias may be compounded by confirmation bias, salience bias, and internet echo chambers.
Optimism bias<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU5OTg2OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMTAzNDM0Mn0.vRtlUDOpCnC_ZOdjxZUpRL5J9fnBeITmXXIPOMXOzhg/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C2291%2C0%2C1908&height=700" id="abbcf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff0569ffedf799d7a1237068dc1ee72f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="smiley paint on gray ground in front of people" />Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash<p>Most people have a tendency to overestimate the chances of experiencing a positive (like getting a promotion), and underestimate the likelihood of experiencing a negative event (like getting robbed or sick). Typically a benign — even beneficial — human quirk, the "optimism bias" could be contributing to the spread of coronavirus according to behavioral psychologists.</p><p>Experts argue that it has caused people to discount their individual chances of contracting COVID-19, despite being aware of its risk to the rest of the population. A study that was conducted over three phases this year surveying 1,145 people in the U.S. found that the majority of people believed that they were less likely to catch the virus than the average person is, regardless of the person's age or gender. </p><p>"This is very typical of what optimism bias is," Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London and lead author of the study, <a href="https://www.cnbc.com/2020/10/22/why-optimism-bias-could-be-unhelpful-in-a-pandemic-say-psychologists.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">told CNBC Make It</a>. "You usually believe that your likelihood of experiencing negative events is lower than people like you, and the likelihood of you experiencing positive events is higher than other people like you."</p><p>According to Sharot, optimism bias is a product of our tendency to vividly imagine positive future events and attribute more probability to them happening. </p><p>In certain circumstances, such as in our jobs and relationships, this can be beneficial by encouraging us to behave in ways that may contribute to positive outcomes, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we're in a pandemic, and it's having a concerning impact on our ability to assess risk and react appropriately. As time goes on and COVID-19 cases <a href="https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/26/health/us-coronavirus-monday/index.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">continue to rise and spread</a> the threat of the virus is becoming a background hum to everyday life making this bias worse. </p><p>"I think now the risk is greater because we have gotten used to this threat. And when you get used to a threat you underestimate it even more," said Sharot.</p><p>The United States is now reporting the greatest number of cases it's seen to date, with a seven-day average of daily new cases reaching 68,767 on Sunday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. </p>
Other menacing biases<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU5OTg3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MzA1OTMwOX0.f68UAZY--fN5yJ_26v7OjhQG5Ieda_HQx_iDF5NKHJI/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C30%2C0%2C31&height=700" id="79c78" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8b155c7f4503e53d756c1451be9874c8" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Michael Siluk/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images<p>Optimism bias may be compounded by <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7144592/" target="_blank">confirmation bias</a>, or the tendency to interpret new information as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories while disregarding information that contradicts one's preferred narrative of reality. Salience bias is also at play, leading people to underplay or discount the threat of something they cannot see such as a microscopic virus or sick people in the hospital.</p><p>Additionally, internet echo chambers exacerbate these cognitive biases. When others share our viewpoints, our biases are typically inflated, and it's never been easier to curate our social circles with networks of people who do exactly that. This feeds into the tribalism and polarization that has added to the challenges of getting a majority of the U.S. population to comply with virus safety measures. Think, for example, how the act of <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/face-masks-transmission" target="_blank">wearing a mask has become politicized</a> in the U.S. as a perceived badge as to which group one belongs to, masks often being associated with liberal-leaning people and no masks (<a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/christian-nationalism" target="_blank">anti-maskers</a>) being associated with the far-right. </p>
Critical thinking and empathy<p>Strong and informed leadership by policymakers can help to make the public keenly aware of the realities and risks of the virus. Educating individuals about how their biases may be affecting their behavior and putting their health and the health of those around them at risk may also help facilitate critical thinking. But the most effective way to counter the damaging effects of cognitive bias in the context of COVID-19 may be by calling on empathy in individuals.</p><p>In fact, while people tend to underestimate their individual risk of contracting the virus, the researchers also found that people's health-related behaviors were more closely linked to their expectations of COVID-19's global impact. </p><p>"People who saw Covid-19 as a grave danger to the health of the human race were more likely to follow public health guidelines such as social distancing and hand-washing, even if they underestimated their own personal risks," <a href="https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2020/may/people-are-optimistic-about-own-covid-19-risk-pessimistic-about-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said Sharot</a>. "This suggests that people are mainly engaging in protective behaviours for the benefit of others, and are not just guided by self-interest, which supports the use of public health messaging framed around concern for the greater good and protecting others."</p>
Optimism bias and other social threats<p>According to Laura Globig, UCL PhD candidate and co-lead author on the study, this research and methodology could be usefully applied to other major social threats, like climate change.</p> <p>"For example, it seems likely that people would be more likely to make 'green choices' if they believe humanity to be at threat from environmental change, regardless of perceived threats to themselves," she noted. </p>
When are you most optimistic? A study found how optimism varies throughout life.
- Researchers studied more than 1,000 people during the course of 7 years.
- They found that levels of optimism change throughout life.
- Optimism grows through the 30s and 40s and peaks in mid-50s.
Researchers look into the drug's association with pronounced optimism.
When most people think of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) the image that comes to mind is hallucinating hippies at Woodstock, but the drug's original use was psychotherapeutic. As early as the 1960s, researchers showed that LSD reduces depression, anxiety and pain in patients with advanced cancer, and recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the drug's beneficial effects. In 2014, Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser published the results of a study showing that LSD could alleviate the symptoms of severe anxiety disorder. And a 2016 study from Imperial College London showed that LSD could increase levels of optimism and openness for extended periods of time.
Envisioning all possible outcomes is far healthier than only praying for the best.
Here's what Israel Guillen learned about life by studying 8 hours a day during his 22-year prison sentence.
Being "tough on crime" doesn't work. Former inmate Israel Guillen is proof that what does work is nurturing people's sense of humanity through philosophy, theatre, and teamwork. Ten years ago, actor Sabra Williams had an experimental idea: she wanted to bring The Actors' Gang Theatre Company into prisons to work with non-actors, and offer them training to understand and manager their emotions. With an incredibly low recidivism rate of just 10% among her students, Williams' experimental idea has proven its worth and now operates in ten prisons across California, which is where Sabra Williams met former inmate and Actors' Gang student Israel Guillen. Israel recently shared his personal story of what he learned throughout his 22-year prison sentence at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. The Actors’ Gang conducts weekly and seven-day intensive programs inside the California prison system, a weekly re-entry program in the community, as well as a program in juvenile facilities, and soon to be a program designed for correctional officers. Head here for more information on The Actors' Gang Prison Project.