The Resilient Mind Series 03

A thousand ways to experience a pandemic – cognitive bias in times of Corona



At the moment the Corona pandemic is resulting in a veritable flood of information which we have to digest every day. We are constantly bombarded with new and at times alarming information on the number of sick and dead in each country and region, we are constantly hearing different advice on mortality rates and the risk of infection, we’re instructed by the Government to comply with the most recently announced emergency measures, and the media broadcast dramatic scenes from hospitals in Bergamo and New York right into our homes. 


There is no avoiding this information overload. In fact, we often actively go looking for it, in the belief that more information will help us get a better grasp of the situation and work out the best course of action for ourselves, our families and our friends. The reports are generally presented in a measured, objective form, with little thought given to how they will be processed psychologically by us, the audience – and all too often they leave us feeling more helpless than before.


And we soon start to feel challenged by this sense of helplessness. Because it begins with the requirement to give up ordinary habits and behaviors that have been embedded in us since childhood – all of a sudden, hugs, handshakes and social contact are taboo. Many social rituals, such sharing a coffee break with your colleagues, playing team sports or meeting up with your friends at the pub, have been put on ice for the time being.


What are the psychological mechanisms that influence the way we deal with this information flood, and all of the new requirements that are raining down on us?


There are three cognitive biases that play a major role here:


1. Latent anxiety and triggered anxiety

Thanks to the internet and our globally interconnected world, news about a new disease like the Corona virus spreads faster than the disease itself. This is because our fear of a possible threat is often disproportionately greater than the threat itself. The fact that people are so susceptible to this kind of anxiety is due to the cognitive biases that trigger these feelings of fear. Because the fact is: the more we engage with an issue that is emotionally charged, the more likely we are to take on board and remember information on this subject, and the quicker and easier we find it to recall this information to mind. This phenomenon is called the availability bias.

This feeling is further fueled by the media, who have a tendency to give greater coverage to negative news and individual anecdotes in order to create a certain shock effect (presumably for the very reason that people actually want to be shocked) – and so we go out looking for more information about the pandemic, because we think that knowledge will give us a feeling of being in control. It’s no wonder, then, that the number of Google searches on Corona-related topics has exploded. Risk itself becomes a fixed thought pattern.


2. Our perception of the risk is strongly biased Our perception and our assessment of risk is always a subjective judgement that we form concerning the nature and severity of a given risk. What’s more, our perception of a risk is heightened when we find ourselves in a situation that is new, unknown or hard to understand. This means that when we don’t know enough to fully understand the possible health implications of a particular situation, our assessment of the associated risk increases significantly. The Corona virus and its transmission is now confronting us with exactly this kind of situation – a situation which is complex and hard to understand. This means that we are highly susceptible to making a false assessment of the risk; either we are overly optimistic because we have no previous experience with global pandemics, or else we extrapolate our fears based on situations we consider to be similar – which proves to be of little help in this particular crisis.   


3. Representation bias can prompt us to draw premature conclusions

This bias describes the principle that, when we think about the Corona pandemic, we consider it in terms of known phenomena we feel to be comparable. In the case of the Corona virus, the all too simplistic assumption that things will happen “the same way as last time” led many people, especially politicians, to dismiss the virus initially as “just another flu”.

Representation bias also includes cases in which we leap to premature conclusions based on the earliest available information. As an example of this, we can consider initial reports which referred to possible success of treating the Corona virus using existing medications. To treat this information as a global treatment option and a solution to the problem is an example of precisely this kind of representation bias.

This is then often exacerbated by the Dunning-Kruger effect, a special form of representation bias in which people who have either no experience or only limited experience believe themselves to be more competent than they actually are. Because, unfortunately, the flipside is that in areas where we have little experience, we also lack awareness of our own incompetence (this is known as unconscious incompetence). At the end of the day, this unfortunate combination of false or insufficient information coupled with a lack of awareness of our incompetence in the matter can lead us to make a false assessment of the situation, even though we are convinced that our analysis is correct.


How can we draw on psychology to manage ourselves better during this Corona pandemic?


  • Managing our own media consumption: our need to keep up with the latest news leads us to be permanently “switched on”, checking all manner of news sites several times a day, often on autopilot. With regard to self-management, the invitation is to be aware, and make conscious decisions. I become aware when I catch myself falling yet again into the trap of mindlessly seeking and consuming information, and make a conscious decision about whether or not I really want to do that.
  • Transforming the need to feel in control into acceptance of the situation: a major challenge of the current situation is that we have to give up our otherwise carefully nurtured feeling that we are (supposedly) in control of our lives. When the Government brings in drastic measures that redefine our everyday lives and the fear of infection hangs over us like Damocles’ sword, we realize that we are truly not in control of our lives. And this generates fear and uneasiness. In this situation we need to acknowledge our feelings, let them in and accept them. (For more on this topic, see The Resilient Mind Series Part 2
  • Cultivating critical thought: the current pandemic prompts us to cultivate what is in fact the most important leadership skill of the future – critical thought. We are called on, first of all, to examine our information sources and, especially when dealing with complex scientific topics, to seek out proven experts in the field to help us form our own opinions. It is also important for us to be aware of our own cognitive biases (such as the tendency to give greater weight to negative news), and to examine the cognitive biases of the authors of the news we are consuming. As well as this, we should also pay special attention to the conclusions presented to us – because, especially in complex situations, the cause and effect principle is not linear but systemic, and highly complex.


The Corona pandemic calls on us to be more aware of how we perceive and organize our everyday lives, and to experiment and grow in important areas of self-management.


If you would like to explore this more deeply, the aergon team is happy to talk to you (online)!

This article is part of the Resilient Mind Series from