Asocial is the New Prosocial - Part 3


Risks, Biases, and Uncertainty in Times of COVID-19 Read Part 1 Here and Part 2 Here


Risks Associated with COVID-19

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people increasingly look for means to assess how much their health is at risk (Klitzman, 2020). Unfortunately, distressed people rely more on their emotions and feelings than factual information, such as statistical probability (Van Bavel et al., 2020). Thus, they fail to grasp risk rationally and instead they under- or overestimate it, biased by their individual experiences. In general, people are more risk-averse when their decisions affect others compared to themselves (Van Bavel et al., 2020), suggesting that focusing on risks to others rather than oneself may be more effective in convincing individuals to practice more responsible behaviors.

In the upcoming months, people must assess COVID-19 risks as rationally as they can, based on scientific evidence when it becomes available (Klitzman, 2020). Unfortunately, people are not as rational as experts used to think. Instead, they use mental shortcuts, which affect how they perceive most aspects of COVID-19 (Baggio, 2020) and how susceptible they are to cognitive biases (Ramsøy, 2020) such as these five: overconfidence, crowd bias, optimism bias, confirmation bias, and availability bias. These biases can be harmless in “normal” circumstances, but if they lead to irrational behaviors in times of pandemic, they might be hazardous or even deadly.

Five Cognitive Biases during COVID-19

1. Overconfidence

Overconfidence has been called “the mother of all psychological biases” (Moore, 2018). During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people express themselves with way more confidence than they should. Many people in higher positions speak as though they know what plans of action and behaviors are best in the face of COVID-19, even though nobody is yet in a position to know (Angner, 2020) since many vital facts about the virus remain unknown.


2. Crowd Bias / Herding Behavior

Crowd bias means that we look to others to guide our behavior (Sutherland, 2020). We socially conform and tend to follow the crowd (Ramsøy, 2020) as a mental shortcut to decide on what the appropriate behavior would be for us if we are not sure ourselves (Smith & Klemm, 2020). The irrational herding behavior kicks in when people suspend critical judgment and start following mindlessly what everyone else is doing. If everyone else is “panic buying” supplies, people follow the herd (Schmidt, 2020; Taylor, 2020).


3. Optimism Bias

Optimism bias can lead people to believe they are less likely to get COVID-19 than they actually are. If so, they may fail to engage in public health behaviors, like social distancing, which could spread the virus (Van Bavel et al., 2020). Believing in “it won’t happen to me” can be a powerful coping strategy to protect people’s mental health and alleviate their anxiety as time passes (Sutherland, 2020). Since COVID-19 is invisible to the naked eye, overly optimistic people might discount its danger to themselves (Klitzman, 2020).


4. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias means that people tend to favor information that supports their beliefs more than things that go against their beliefs (Ramsøy, 2020). It takes little effort to find an article on the Internet that tells people what they want to hear, which can lead to cherry-picking statements that minimize or catastrophize the severity of the situation. For example, if people have the misconception that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, they are more prone to put others at risk by not following social distancing rules (Shaw, 2020).


5. Availability Bias

Availability bias means that individuals see an event as more likely to happen if they can immediately recall it. Thus, if people have personal familiarity with an event, they tend to see it as more common (Klitzman, 2020), and their estimation of the probability of an event is biased towards their own experience and exposure to the information about it. For example, when people are bombarded by heartbreaking stories of people suffering from COVID-19, these images can serve as an unconscious shortcut for their decision-making (Baggio, 2020).


Uncertainty Surrounding COVID-19

People can imagine encounters with future threats that they can avoid (Van Bavel et al., 2020), aiming to prepare for the worst-case scenario rather than the best (Savage & Torgler, 2020), which gives them a sense of control (Mao, 2020). Still, with no vaccine available and a lack of knowledge of COVID-19 next move, there is uncertainty about how things are going to pan out, or how much worse it’s going to get (Schmidt, 2020; Loewenstein, 2020), and when everything returns to normalcy (Faye, 2020).

We don’t know how many people are and will be infected with COVID-19, nor do we understand how infectious are symptomless people (Angner, 2020). This uncertainty can make people anxious and lead them to behave irrationally. Interestingly, people’s irrational behaviors are vastly different when facing the risk of contracting COVID-19. While some people overreact and hoard excessive piles of food, others underreact and engage in risky behavior such as socializing in large gatherings without taking any safety measures (Pennycook et al., 2020). Therefore, it is essential to understand better why people behave the way they do and to develop methodologies and interventions to identify and reduce irrational behaviors.


Behavioral Economics Assessments in Times of Pandemic

Given Behave4’s experience in the study of human behavior, we know the importance of associating the present circumstances to people’s behavior to be able to predict patterns and design effective interventions. As a pioneering company in the application of Behavioral Economics techniques to Human Resources management (see Samson, 2019), we wanted to put our expertise in evaluating behavioral profiles at the service of the study of the COVID-19 crisis.


Our pilot study is based on the use of our individual measures of preferences and behaviors, obtained through economic games, to predict several variables of interest as we do in one of our most demanded services at Behave4. In the case of our corporate clients, the variables that are typically predicted are the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). During this pilot study, however, we have focused on two main variables related to the study goals: people’s concern about the COVID-19 crisis and their perception about the possibility of having been infected by the virus (Behave4, 2020).


Due to the data collected in our pilot study, based on economic games, we have been able to achieve fascinating findings by merging the COVID-19 crisis and people’s behavioral styles. One of the pilot study results indicates that perceiving a greater risk for one’s health, i.e., a higher probability of being infected is associated with a stronger short-run orientation (Behave4, 2020). If you want to learn more about this and many other critical results on how the COVID-19 pandemic affects human behavior, we offer you free access to the full version of our study “Behavioral Economics Assessments in Times of Pandemic” with comprehensive study results here.


Have a look at our Behavioral Diagnosis platform and explore what else Behave4 can offer you if you want to know your employees better by applying the “Know Your People” framework with 30+ behavioral variables customizable to your company’s needs and pre-tested at large scale before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. This way, you can extract meaningful results for your business on how to become behavioral agile and thrive in the post-crisis world based on evidence-based Behavioral Economics methodology.


by Wiktoria Salwa, Contributing Writer at Behave4



Sources and Further Reading:

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Angner, E. (2020, April 13). Epistemic Humility-Knowing Your Limits in a Pandemic. Retrieved from https://behavioralscientist.org/epistemic-humility-coronavirus-knowing-your-limits-in-a-pandemic/

Baggio, M. (2020, March 10). Here’s why society is reacting with panic to coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/dont-panic-how-human-behaviour-can-fuel-the-coronavirus/

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