Cognitive bias explains the inconsistent citizen response to Covid-19
In India, the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was devastating. People were hospitalised with severe illness, and many lost loved ones. It was distressing to watch, in disbelief and agony, patients being denied their right to breathe, with the constant fear that any one of us could be next. People expressed their concerns about how the State and the health system failed us, all while wondering what could have been done to save more lives.
With the second wave receding and the number of daily cases on the decline, lockdowns and curbs have been lifted in many states. This, naturally, has led to an increase in social interactions and travel. Market places and hill tourist destinations are being thronged by people. Viral videos and photographs have emerged of people making merry, with no masks on.
As images of those gasping for air fade from people’s memories, how has citizen behaviour flip-flopped to disregarding Covid-19-appropriate behaviour such as ensuring physical distancing and wearing masks? Why is the fear of the virus ebbing?
The inconsistent response to the threat of Covid-19 may be related to a systematic error in thinking known as cognitive bias. Cognitive biases affect our everyday lives, choices and actions. They occur as a result of the brain prioritising simplified information processing. Because people’s capacity for reasoning is limited, cognitive biases work as shortcuts — rule of thumb — that lead to relatively speedy decisions as the brain makes sense of what’s happening.
Many cognitive biases are likely at play here. Evidence of the confirmation bias, a type of cognitive bias, is people selectively favouring news stories that confirm a drop in new infections and lifting of curbs, as a sign of a reduced threat of Covid-19.
Similarly, the optimistic bias, another type of cognitive bias, may lead people to believe that they are less likely to suffer from the misfortune of falling sick like others. These biases are likely to distract people from taking precautions, and, thereby, influence recklessness.
This is also the second year of the pandemic. People are tired. Fear, an adaptive emotional response to a threat or danger, can feel burdensome when it is tentative and continuous, because of which it is insufficient to motivate wise choices. The constant stress of illness, financial losses, layoffs, the disruption caused to children’s education, and crucially, deaths, along with the forced physical separation from friends and family have led to widespread emotional exhaustion, which is being called Covid-fatigue.
Covid fatigue, also called behavioural fatigue, pandemic fatigue, or adherence fatigue has gained currency as an explanatory framework. It explains the tendency of people to become naturally tired of preventive rules and guidance. This fatigue may make people less motivated to adhere to these rules over time.
The World Health Organization acknowledges the complex nature of pandemic fatigue and recommends four key strategies to maintain and reinvigorate public support for protective behaviours. First, design effective policies and interventions based on evidence tailored for people. Second, allow people to live their lives, while reducing risk. Third, acknowledge and address the hardships faced by people. Last, and most importantly, engage citizens as part of the solution. Community role models can be engaged to help encourage preventive behaviours.
Until a significant percentage of people is double-vaccinated, non-pharmaceutical interventions such as avoiding crowded places and rigorous mask etiquette are of utmost importance. While individual responsibility to mitigate the risk of infection is high, people’s fluctuating fear of the virus, pandemic fatigue, and a lackadaisical approach in following preventive behaviour must be understood, acknowledged, and addressed. Rules related to Covid-19-preventive behaviour cannot be broken. A reinvigorated effort is needed to remind the public of the enormity of this disease.
Payal S Kapoor is associate professor, FORE School of Management, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal