Don’t Let Cognitive Biases Cause You To Engage In Risky Public Health Behaviour

Don’t Let Cognitive Biases Cause You To Engage In Risky Public Health Behaviour
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Now that the “new normal” has started feeling, well, normal, how can we ensure we’re still remaining vigilant with our vital public health behaviours? Hand-washing, physical distancing, and mask wearing aren’t going to be less important any time soon, but familiarity can breed laziness, and when it comes to the pandemic, that’s… pretty bad.

Maintaining our good behaviours might come down to understanding and reckoning with our own cognitive biases—and the strategies we can take to overcome them.

A new study at The Lancet outlines eight pitfalls in judgment that might prompt risky public health behaviour. As physician-researcher Donald A Redelmeier and behavioural scientist Eldar Shafir explain, the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has gone on for so long can lead some of us to assume that the worst of the threat is over, which is not the case.

Conversely, some of us may be so focused on the coronavirus threat that we ignore other physical and mental health risks, from the long-term effects of isolation to the hazards of exercising without proper technique or equipment.

Redelmeier and Shafir created a chart listing each of the eight pitfalls, as well as strategies to prevent these cognitive biases from affecting our judgment and behaviour:

ImageThe Lancet” loading=”lazy” > Screenshot: Nicole Dieker, The Lancet

Dana Rose Garfin, on the faculty at the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing (University of California-Irvine), agrees with Redelmeier and Shafir’s assessment. “My colleagues and I are currently conducting several studies about these topics,” Garfin told me.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic no longer feels new, Garfin explains, we may be tempted to ease up on the behaviours that we committed to seven weeks ago—even though those are the very behaviours that can help protect us and the people around us. When self-isolation works, for example, it creates the kind of results that prompt people to ask why we’re still self-isolating. “This creates agitation in the community,” Garfin says. “People start saying we don’t need to be doing this.

And there’s one more important cognitive bias that The Lancet left off its chart: confirmation bias: Our tendency to favour our own preconceived notions. “People pay attention to information that supports what they already believe,” Garfin explains. If people are looking for news that corroborates their personal beliefs about coronavirus transmission, herd immunity or national reopening strategies, they’ll often be able to find plenty of articles and social media posts that support their beliefs—and they might not pay as much attention to whether or not that information comes from a reputable source.

Even well-researched, well-sourced information that debunks a particular theory can’t always shake a particularly entrenched belief. “It’s an interesting phenomenon,” Garfin says. “Contradicting information makes [your belief] in whatever it is you believe even stronger.”

What does that mean for all of us, now in our seventh week of self-isolation and physical distancing? Well, we can’t let our guards down just yet. We still need to isolate ourselves, avoid unnecessary trips outside, stay six feet away from people not in our immediate households, wear masks in public places and practice good hand-washing habits. On the other hand, we can’t be so guarded that we forget about other threats to our health and well-being. (As Redelmeier and Shafer remind us, we don’t want to end up in the hospital for any reason right now.)

In other words: Remain vigilant, but avoid excessive anxiety. Stay connected and stay balanced, even while you stay at home. Don’t look for articles and Twitter threads that suggest you can be the exception to the rule, because you’ll probably find something that tells you just what you want to hear—and it might prompt you to engage in risky behaviour that could hurt both yourself and others.

Essentially, we can’t treat our “new normal” like it’s, well, normal. 


  • I wish we remained vigilant, and followed the health rules.

    The truth from where I stand is we never followed the health rules such as 1.5m distance or not having non-household visitors. Last weekend was a testament; up and down my street grandkids visiting granny. Throughout shopping centres and then into Bunnings – all in each others pockets.

    Our population does appear to have grown weary of restrictions but only from a financial point of view , certainly not for our health.

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