Delusions and Biases
I don’t use the word “delusion” here in a clinical sense; rather, I use the word as it is used in Buddhist scripture. In Buddhism, delusions have been defined as “distorted ways of looking at ourselves, other people, and the world around us–like a distorted mirror, they reflect a distorted world.” (Gyatso.) Buddhism teaches that delusions and ignorance obscure fundamental truths of the world around us. These delusions are hardwired into our brains for protection and survival, but create suffering for all of us. The world of psychology generally refers to these delusions as thinking errors, misperceptions, and cognitive biases. Research offers plentiful examples of the such errors – or delusions- and these psychological phenomena help explain the irrational human behavior that has enabled the devastating spread of COVID-19 in the US and resulted in widespread suffering that continues to grow by the day.
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Opinions are like A**holes
We don’t all see things the same way. It’s natural that opinions vary from person to person. Take a scroll online and you will find an array of opinions about the need for masks, social distancing, and other coronavirus precautions. How is that there can be such a variety of beliefs about a fairly simple medical issue? Why aren’t we all just listening to the epidemiologists around the world whose consensus is quite straightforward? Why is that some people think they know better than the experts*?
Human brains are like amazing, albeit imperfect, computers. They constantly contend with an incredible amount of information and must quickly derive conclusions and make decisions. To manage this, the brain has evolved shortcuts to enable more efficient processing of information and decision-making, sometimes called intuitive or instinctual thinking processes. These are helpful for daily routines and for rote or learned skills, etc. However, these shortcuts also result in thinking errors, erroneous beliefs, and poor choices, even in the face of contradictory evidence.
Let’s explore one type of thinking error (or delusion) relevant to the current situation: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance describes the psychological discomfort we feel when we hold contradictory thoughts on an issue. For example, we might hold two such opposing thoughts about safety behaviors: 1. I want to go out to eat, and 2. I could get sick – or sicken others – if I sit in a restaurant right now. We know both are true but we have to choose one path or the other: stay home or go out.
In order to mitigate the dissonance created by these competing impulses, once our decision is made, our brains will justify our chosen behavior. For example, our brain will generate evidence for the perceived wisdom for our choice and dismiss any contradictory information. So if we choose to eat out, we might tell ourselves things like, “I would have spent all night cooking and cleaning if I had stayed home,” or “look at all the people in here – seems like everyone is eating out.”
This psychological phenomenon occurs not by choice, but by instinct. It is most powerful when choices we make threaten our beliefs about how we view ourselves – for example as ethical or smart people. Furthermore, our commitment to our choice becomes more deeply entrenched the more we behave in the chosen way. So, after going out to eat five times, it will be harder to admit that behavior might be questionable than it was prior to making the choice to go out the first time.
Cognitive dissonance is not the only explanation for America’s struggle to get onboard with basic COVID-19 safety measures; a whole host of thinking errors are at play. For example, we tend to think bad things are more likely to occur to others than to ourselves (optimism bias.) We struggle to understand exponential (vs. linear) growth. We tend to prioritize the present over the future. Moreover, fear makes us even less able to reason clearly, causing us to weigh anecdotes over scientific evidence. Together, these biases help explain how even reasonable, rational people can convince themselves of things they want to believe.
Although specific biases have unique remedies, some strategies can work to mitigate biases of all kinds. The following strategies come from psychological research and Buddhism:
1. Choose your information sources carefully and defer to experts who make use of the scientific method (which, while not perfect, is designed to generate conclusions free of these biases) whenever possible.
2. Actively question your beliefs and assumptions. Look for contrary evidence to your existing beliefs and make peace with the idea that most of life’s complicated truths are just that: complicated. They don’t fall neatly into right/wrong boxes.
3. Avoid social media, which only worsens our tendency to consume media that supports our existing viewpoints and which highlights the most salacious, incendiary, and one-sided arguments about situations.
4. Have a little compassion for those whose behaviors seem inexplicable. People long to return to normal. And their brains will find any number of justifications – that COVID-19 is just the flu, that masks restrict their breathing, that their “freedom” is being put in jeopardy – in order to engage in the behaviors that help them feel calm and normal. Recognize that your brain is also working to reconcile competing information and justifying your choices and behaviors.
*Disclaimer: I am choosing not to address the very obvious and important role that America’s tradition and promise of individual liberties, our individualistic culture, and our politicized leadership failures play in our behavior. Books could be written on these topics individually and each has a critical contribution to the current US’ COVID-19 quagmire. This article will focus instead on the psychological factors that prevent us from making sound judgments, even when we have the information to do otherwise.