Cognitive Biases: Explaining irrational behaviours worldwide

Image of the post author Kadence International

As of the first week of March 2020, the total number of confirmed cases in mainland China, the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, is slightly over 80,000. This works out to be no more than 6 cases in 100,000 people. The probability is much lower in most other places, such as 3.38 cases in 100,000 people in Italy, 1.89 in 100,000 in Singapore, and 0.03 in 100,000 in the US.

Despite the low probability, many people are appearing to be more fearful than they should be, with an exaggerated perceived risk.

Panic buying happened within hours when the DORSCON level was raised to Orange in Singapore early last month. Canned food, rice, instant noodles, and even toilet papers were swept off the shelves that evening, with queues longer than we have ever seen in supermarkets. The same phenomenon hit the US, Germany, Italy and Indonesia this week, after more local cases were confirmed. Masks, sanitizers, and disinfectants are sold out, social events and activities are cancelled, and many instances of racism against people of Chinese ethnicity have been observed around the world.

Is this fear rational? It seems the fear is spreading faster, and affecting people’s lives to a larger extent, than the virus itself. Why is that?

The following five cognitive biases can explain most of these irrational behaviours during the COVID-19 outbreak.

1.     Negativity bias – we have the tendency to pay more attention to bad things

Humans have a natural tendency to place more emphasis to negative things, such as remembering negative incidents more clearly, being more affected by criticisms than compliments, or feeling more emotional pain for a loss of $10 than happiness gained for the picking up $10.

“Good things last eight seconds…Bad things last three weeks.” – Linus van Pelt, Peanuts

During the COVID-19 outbreak, we tend to pay more attention to bad news (in part also due to news channels’ willingness to focus on negative news as well, following the same principle) – the number of new cases/deaths/infected patients in critical condition – much more than the number of recoveries. Some people actively search for information that scares themselves more, such as ‘evidence’ that shows masks are not effective in protecting you from the virus, reading up on past global pandemics, or even unknowingly landing on fake news which exacerbates the severity of the situation. All these contribute to the psychological fear of ‘Could it happen to me?’.

2.     Confirmation bias – we pay more attention to information that supports our belief

People are prone to believe what they want to believe, and actively look out for evidence to support their beliefs, while dismissing those that contradict. This confirmation bias is more prevalent in anxious individuals, which makes them perceive the world to be more dangerous than it is. For example, an anxious person is more likely to be more sensitive about what people think of him/her, and constantly look out for signs that show people do not like them, biasing towards negative words or actions.

We naturally seek information to protect ourselves, because the ‘unknown’ is more fearful than the ‘known’. If we think the situation is severe, we tend to focus on news that talks about the severity of the situation, which results in a self-fulfilling prophecy. With greater amount of information now being spread much more quickly over social media, the effects of this bias are a lot more pronounced. A cursory scroll through the Reddit thread on COVID-19 can quickly convince someone that it will bring about the end of the world! 

3.     Probability neglect – we have the tendency to disregard probability when making decisions

A potential outcome that is incredibly pleasant or terrifying is likely to affect our rational minds. We are more likely to be swayed by our emotions towards the potential outcome and pay less attention to the actual probability.

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Looking factually at the numbers of COVID-19, the probability of getting the virus is very low, and much lower than many other risks that we are accustomed to, such as the common flu or cold. Yet people are terrified and have extreme panic or preventive behaviours towards the situation. The fact that the virus is new, and that it can be fatal, could have added to the fear, clouding judgement. Many are avoiding malls, reducing dining out, cancelling travels. This effect extends into greater economic implications. The ‘unknown’ is playing with our feelings, and we react to the feelings, not probability, towards the risk. 

4.     Stereotyping – we tend to make unjustified generalisations

On 11 February, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the official new name of the coronavirus to be COVID-19. According to WHO, they had to find a name that did not refer to a geographical location, an animal, an individual or a group of people.

This is not just a WHO naming guideline, but an important step to reduce negative stereotypes. During the early stages of the outbreak, there was hatred against Wuhan, or China, and this prejudice has even extended to all Chinese people outside of China. In many countries, many people also irrationally avoid visiting the Chinatown, or dining in Chinese restaurants, as if you visit a neighbourhood Chinese restaurant, you will get the virus, even if your neighbourhood is safe[ML1] [DG2] . Aside from how stereotyping individuals is in and off itself a negative social action, such perceptions can also lead to feelings of false assurance, that one is ‘immune’ to the virus, which in turn can result in behaviours that run counter to public health advisories.

5.     Illusory truth effect – it’s true if it’s repeated

 “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes truth” – people tend to believe what they constantly see or hear in the news, regardless of whether there is any evidence of its veracity. A recent study [ML3] [DG4] has shown this effect to be present even if people are familiar with the subject, as the repeated lies introduce doubt into their psyche.

This is one of the key reasons why “fake news” has been able to take hold during this outbreak – from quack sesame oil remedies to protect against the virus to misconceptions that packages from China are dangerous to handle. In Singapore, after the same few photos of panic buying being circulated via social media many times makes it a ‘nationwide phenomenon’. WHO and governments around the world have been actively trying to take back the narrative from these “fake news” sources, but the prevalence of social media and the ease of sharing such information to one’s friends and families will present an uphill challenge to combat them.

What it means for brands

Firstly, it is important to remember that cognitive biases exist in human beings, and consumer behaviours aren’t always rational. During the crisis, such behaviours are magnified, and the impact/ repercussions of these irrationalities become amplified.  you should consider what consumers are thinking, and how they are reacting. Understanding where the biasness is from, and how it manifests in thinking and actions, can help you decide on strategies what can potentially lead to behavioural changes.

Secondly, we also need to understand that relying on past information may not be able to help you accurately predict into the future, because people’s reaction to the same stimulus may have changed. For example, the last time DORSCON was raised to Orange in Singapore during the H1N1 crisis in 2019, there wasn’t ‘panic buying’ that led to the severe shortage of masks or sanitizers. Planning in the future, you can think about whether your brand will be perceived any differently once the outbreak is over – how would people’s mindset change because of the outbreak? What will people be looking out for, post- this crisis? Consider how you can address the post-crisis world, and find your competitive advantage.

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