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Confirmation bias and the corona virus
or is it
Confirmation virus and the corona bias

May 1, 2020
Welcome to the inaugural issue of Behavioral New World. My overall goal for the newsletter is to explore the lessons of behavioral economics to help us better understand the world around us and make better decisions in all aspects of our lives. I welcome feedback:

In this “launch” edition, I would like to highlight the nastier aspects of one of the most well-known biases in the vast library of behavioral economics research: “confirmation bias.” Understanding the mechanics of this bias is especially helpful in explaining why, in these pandemic times, there is a wide range of opinion on such critical matters as the necessity for social distancing (including quarantines and lockdowns), as well as when travel bans and other restrictions should be lifted. Right now I see so many signs of this bias bubbling up that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this bias has gone viral itself.

Confirmation bias is the tendency we have to be open to information that confirms beliefs that we already have, while being closed to information that does not support those beliefs. This bias is not at all unexpected: after all, it can be comforting to have our worldview reinforced and uncomfortable to have it challenged. Alternatively, we can think of confirmation bias as being receptive to information that points to a goal we want, and cool to information that suggests the goal is not achievable or desirable.

In the context of the pandemic, some people put a very high value on human life relative to economic growth (or, alternatively, personal freedom), and thus urge stringent social distancing. Others put different weights on human life versus economic growth. Each of these groups is subject to confirmation bias. For example, the first group will be open to information that suggests that the economy will rebound quickly once the pandemic has passed, a so-called “V-shaped” recovery. The second group might focus on information suggesting that the risk of the coronavirus has been overstated.

I am not taking a position about the severity or duration of social distancing. In my view, there is (at this time) a great deal of uncertainty about the true state of affairs. I wish only to show one of the main – and largely hidden – reasons why there is wide range of opinions when people generally have access to the same information, a wider range than there would be if we were not subject to confirmation bias. Nor I am I trying to explain why some people deliberately circulate misinformation.

But confirmation bias can be more insidious than merely causing a wider dispersion of beliefs. For example, suppose it becomes abundantly clear that lockdowns are effective at reducing the spread of the virus. Those interested in reigniting the economy pronto might discount such information. Put differently, confirmation bias can lock in their viewpoint even as the evidence changes. If they are decision makers, they then would “open up” the economy which, in turn, could lead to a resurgence of the virus. As individuals, they may follow social distancing guidelines only loosely, if at all, again potentially leading to disastrous consequences.

Of course, the opposite narrative can be told if the evidence suggests that the virus is not as dangerous as first believed. There is then the possibility that social distancing would be kept in place when it is not necessary, an action that has a clear economic toll.

Given that confirmation bias can lead to bad decisions (in all arenas of life, I might add), how should we act to minimize its effects?

Obviously, an awareness that we as humans are subject to confirmation bias is necessary. You are there already. Then, as suggested by Robert Greene in his book The Laws of Human Nature (Viking, 2018), "Your first impulse should always be to find the evidence that disconfirms your most cherished beliefs…” Good idea! That is an approach taken by true scientists, and one even lay people should adopt.  (It also is a very good antidote to a related phenomenon: hubris.)

Perhaps the last word on this topic should go to famed economist John Maynard Keynes. He reputedly said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” This potent dose of vintage Keynes might be a good vaccine these days against what might be called a “corona bias.”
Copyright © 2020 John S. Howe, All rights reserved.

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