How Fast and Slow Thinking Shape Perception and Choice During COVID-19

How often has someone asked you the question, “what was the scariest, course you took, where all you wanted was to pass?” More often than not, the two responses are accounting and probability/statistics!

Now more than ever, our environment is rife with uncertainty. COVID-19 has exponentially increased uncertainty and probabilities on actions that we should or should not take.

Even before COVID-19, probabilities were lurking in the shadows for everything from the weather to elections to financial decisions. Fearing probabilities results in seeking ways to simplify what is being shared. With COVID-19, it can devolve into the extreme choices of either, “it won’t happen to me,” or “we need to start hoarding toilet paper.”  Based on Daniel Kahneman’s work, this is System 1 trying to use intuition to simplify the situation with overconfidence and come to a quick conclusion. As opposed to System 2 in which you take time for deeper thought, applying mental models, and concluding. In turbulent times it is even easier to let System 1 take control, but how do we ensure that we consider the probabilities and the experts in engaging System 2?

It is necessary to have an approach attractive to Self 1 but gains enough attention to engage System 2. Professions such as Sports Coaching and Executive Leadership use storytelling to share knowledge. It entertains System 1 and encourages System 2 thinking. The story can present scenarios depicting alternative paths and actions which will impact each path’s outcome. The richness of these alternative paths is the vehicle for sharing concepts which would otherwise be ignored because alone they may be too difficult to absorb.

But back to the top at hand: COVID-19. A story or scenario can be used to address questions like: “What are my chances of getting the virus” or “What are the factors in deciding how fast we move to the ‘new normal’?” For instance, Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee, responded to a question on what should be the motivation for compliance to his COVID-19 safety guidelines, “This is not a time to go out in public and close contact, It’s too dangerous, you might be killing your granddad if you don’t do it, [Comply with the guidelines]. I am serious about this.”

We don’t all have the same stake in the pandemic, and it’s important to recognize the vulnerable groups who will be hit hardest (i.e. Older adults, those with medical conditions and are immunocompromised, and people experiencing homelessness, etc.). Though some people are going to ride through this period of crisis just fine, there’s some people who are going to be devastated. 

With social media constantly bombarding the public with quick snapshots of COVID-19 data that is poorly understood by the public, many people’s attitudes and policy preferences towards the pandemic become skewed or misinterpreted. They let System 1s fast, instinctive and emotional response take control and make decisions for them instead of using System 2s slower, more deliberative, and more logical response. To overcome this pandemic, it will take everyone to engage in System 2 thinking when applying the safety recommendations provided by the World Health Organization (WHO).

As Malcom Gladwell states, this pandemic could be the “shock to the system that we need in terms of that kind of long-term reorganization of our priorities.” Sometimes all it takes is a powerful COVID-19 story to shock Self 1 into the right response and advance to System 2 thinking. Bottom line frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and wearing a mask requires going beyond System 1 and using System 2 to engage in these behaviors for the wellbeing of everyone.

If you want to engage System 2 consider the Wall Street Journal article that motivated this blog and become more thoughtful in System 1 and System 2 with a quick read on these concepts is this summary of Thinking Fast and Slow by Danial Kahneman.

Stay Safe! Stay Healthy!