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  • Santiago Garcia

COVID-19 & Cognitive Bias

The Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a highly communicable, upper-respiratory virus that spreads quickly from person to person. Shortly before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic, Dr. Tsipursky argued that it was only a matter of time before the world broke into a ‘state of emergency and mass paranoia.’ There are now cases of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) in all 50 states. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that efforts to produce a vaccine will only reduce the chance of illness by up to 50%, and policy makers are hoping that the virus will die out by the end of the year or be a seasonal illness (similar to the flu).


How exactly do we put an end to this invisible and seemingly invincible enemy (virus detectable in aerosols up to 3-hours and plastic/stainless steels up to 2-3 hours, effectively rendering hazmat suits obsolete)? Arriving at an answer can only be done by streamlining and honing the problem-solving and decision-making processes. This begins with eliminating individual sources of error.


Dr. Tsipursky argues that the United States will battle issues larger than the virus itself, issues stemming from cognitive biases. A cognitive bias is a unique construction of reality that produces errors in how people think, make decisions, mitigate risks, and perceive the environment (Psychology Today). Cognitive biases are a result of processing errors that come from mental shortcuts (social influence, individual desires, emotions, stereotypes, and physiological limitations are all forms of cognitive biases).


Regarding COVID-19, organizations making decisions for public health and safety ought to recognize and compensate for normalcy bias (assuming things will keep going as normal), planning fallacy (naturally believing the future will go as planned), and hyperbolic discounting (over-prioritizing the short-term). These are all cognitive biases that inherently affect people’s thinking. Developing awareness, taking multiple perspectives, and analyzing uncertainty are steps that leadership should be including in their overall problem solving approach to reduce the impact of their cognitive biases.


One of the ways researchers are working to enhance cognitive performance is through microdosing. Microdosing is the use of psychedelic substances (LSD/Mushrooms) over a period of time to improve health, strengthen relationships, and increase productivity. This works by triggering neuro-mechanisms that rewire damaged neural networks. There is still substantial evidence needed to support microdosing, but initial tests indicate that it could eventually help re-surface neural pathways associated with several cognitive biases. In microdoses tested on animals, the drugs sparked growth in neurites (neural communicators that degrade with age) with no observed side-effects (Science Alert: Nield). Microdosing could eventually become a powerful tool to overcome environmental and trauma-induced systematic cognitive biases.


There has been a surplus of information from official health organizations addressing necessary government and private sector preparations for the mass spread of the virus. Some of this advice includes cross-training employees, preparing for cancellations, performing additional cleaning and sanitation, tele-working, reserving additional capital, social distancing, etc. Dr. Tsipursky does an excellent job of highlighting important lessons businesses and teams can learn from this pandemonium, with the most important being to make every effort to gain a competitive advantage. This aligns directly with the Golden Rule of Sport: “Do everything you can to help you win.”


One of the simplest steps leaders can take to combat these inherent biases is by identifying ways to overcome uncertainty and to focus on the controllable. Getting ahead on work-related tasks, checking in on teammates, getting the doctor recommended 7-9 hours of sleep, and exercising and fueling the body with proper nutrition are all simple, yet necessary steps leaders can take to ensure they’ve taken care of what life has placed in our control. If there is one thing this virus taught all of us, it’s to enjoy the journey. No matter what plans you and I have made and what we’ve done to prepare, the universe will always be in control.

Relevant Media:

https://www.sciencealert.com/psychedelic-drugs-mdma-lsd-repair-broken-neural-networks-in-brain

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/thoughts-thinking/201809/12-common-biases-affect-how-we-make-everyday-decisions

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