Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

Coronavirus and Critical Thinking

Let me ask you a simple question: What’s the crime rate in your neighborhood?

To answer the question, you’ll need to do a fair amount of research. You might dig through police reports, census data, city government publications, and so on. It’s a lot of work.

But our brains don’t like to work. As Daniel Kahneman writes, “Thinking is to humans as swimming is to cats. They can do it, but they prefer not to.”

So, instead of answering the original question, we substitute a simpler question: How much crime can I remember in my neighborhood?

If we can remember a lot of crime – if it’s top of mind — we’ll guess that our neighborhood has a high crime rate. If we can’t remember much crime, we’ll guess that we have a low crime rate. We use our memory as a proxy for reality. It’s simple and probably not wholly wrong. It’s good enough.

Let me ask you another simple question: How dangerous is coronavirus?

It’s a tough question. We can’t possibly know the “right” answer. Even the experts can’t figure it out. So, how does our mind work on a tough question like this?

First, we use our memory as a proxy for reality. How top of mind is coronavirus? How available is it to our memory? (This, as you might guess, is known as the availability bias). Our media is saturated with stories about coronavirus. We see it every day. It’s easy to recall from memory. Must be a big deal.

Second, the media will continue to focus on coronavirus for several more months (at least). In the beginning, the media focused on the disease itself. Now, the media is more likely to focus on secondary effects – travel restrictions, quarantines, etc. Soon, the media will focus on reactions to the virus. Protesters will march on Washington demanding immediate action to protect us. The media will cover it.

The media activity is known as an availability cascade. The story keeps cascading into new stories and new angles on the same old story. The cascade keeps the story top of mind. It remains easily available to us. When was the last time we had a huge availability cascade? Think back to 2014 and the Ebola crisis. Sound familiar?

Third, our minds will consider how vivid the information is. How scary is it? How creepy? We remember vicious or horrific crimes much better than we remember mundane crimes like Saturday night stickups. How vivid is coronavirus? We see pictures everyday of workers in hazmat suits. It’s vivid.

Fourth, what are other people doing? When we don’t know how to act in a given situation, we look for cues from our fellow humans. What do we see today? Pictures of empty streets and convention centers. We read that Chinatown in New York is empty of tourists. People are afraid. If they’re afraid, we probably should be, too.

Fifth, how novel is the situation? We’re much more afraid of devils we don’t know than of devils that we do know. The coronavirus – like the Ebola virus before it – is new and, therefore, unknowable. Health experts can reassure us but, deep in our heart of hearts, we know that nobody knows. We can easily imagine that it’s the worst-case scenario. It could be the end of life as we know it.

Sixth, is it controllable? We want to think that we can control the world around us. We study history because we think that knowing the past will help us control the future. If something scary is out of our control, we will spare no expense to bring it back under control. Even a small scare – like the Three Mile Island incident – can produce a huge reaction. At times, it seems that the cure may be worse than the disease.

What to do? First, let’s apply some contextual thinking – both current and historical.

  • Current context — compared to other current threats, how bad is coronavirus? As of early February 2020, coronavirus has killed slightly more than 1,100 people worldwide. This compares to 80,000 deaths from plain old ordinary flu in the 2017-2018 flu season in the United States alone.
  • Historical context – compared to previous outbreaks of novel viruses, how bad is coronavirus? Here we might compare coronavirus to Ebola and SARS. To date, coronavirus has killed more people than either Ebola or SARS. So, perhaps coronavirus is more dangerous. But let’s also remember how the stories or Ebola and SARS developed and how they ended. Both started with an outcry that led to near panic. Then the story stopped. We regained control. It’s likely that the coronavirus story will end the same way.

So, what to do? You’re much more likely to succumb to plain old ordinary flu than you are to be infected by coronavirus. So, get a flu shot. Then do what the old British posters from World War II told us all to do: Keep calm and carry on.

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