Living in a dual reality, unpacking cognitive dissonance in a pandemic

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Cognitive disodence

In a recent Square Holes podcast with Siamack Salari, he talked about ‘dual realities’.

People have this dual reality. On one hand they realise that [COVID-19] is a killer and that it’s important to socially isolate and on the other hand they are doing things that are completely inexplicable – so there’s lots of contradictions in the way people are behaving.”

Siamack Salari

There is something to say about people’s realities and applying different rules to different realities. Why so?

  1. We are totally confused. Its ‘unprecedented’ (yes that word again) – no one really knows what to do. 
  2. Our levels of perceived risk can be anywhere from 0 to 100 on a scale as we see with people in strict quarantine while others gather on beaches.
  3. A deep craving for normalcy. Old habits die hard.

Confusion Example 1. The virus stays in the air – well no, or yes, maybe, especially in a closed room, in one hour a sick person can infect ten, so if it falls, all our children were already infected at school before it was closed. But remember, if you stay at the recommended social distance, however in certain circumstances you should maintain a greater distance, which, studies show, the virus can travel further, maybe. [Source: Unknown].

Judgement heuristics and cognitive biases theory describes two fictitious modules of the brain that tell us that individuals save on cognitive effort by using the relatively less cognitively taxing and spontaneous system 1, as compared to the more rational system 2 which requires cognitive effort[1].

Is that just saying it’s really just too hard to comprehend so we will go about business as usual? Sometimes. Depending on the situation. 

In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values, or participates in an action that goes against one of these three, and experiences psychological stress because of that.

Contradicting behaviour – our shoulder angel and devil duelling the moral dilemma

“Don’t listen to that guy, he’s going to lead you down the path of righteousness” 

Emperor’s New Grove
Emperor's New Groove (1/8) Best Movie Quote - Kronk's Shoulder Angel and Devil (2000)

Judgement Heuristics –  Intuition and reason 

How do we make sense of the world around us?  Heuristics helps us simplify the decision making process. System 1 (of the brain) informs impressions, feelings and intuitions for system 2. If system 2 endorses these institutions, they turn into beliefs. System 2 will spring into action when system 1 encounters a situation that is counter to its world view. 

System 1 is biased to look for confirmatory evidence that enables us to make sense of the world around us …

“Wow there are actually people dying from this highly contagious disease!”

Such a bias is also reflected in the desire of individuals to reduce or avoid cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance arises from the psychological stress placed upon individuals when they hold different mental models of the world. In such cases to rationalise the world around them and reduce conflict between different mental models. Let’s just pretend everything is normal.

Heuristics Explained

You may view yourself as somewhat immune, given your above average intelligence, but even this is an example of cognitive bias—overconfidence. People have a tendency to notice cognitive and motivational biases far more in others than themselves. Those who wish to ignore their cognitive bias are likely suffering from the ostrich effect. The name comes from the common (but false) legend that ostriches bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger. The avoidance of apparently risky situations by pretending they do not exist and pretending everything is normal.

Normalcy – A US example

A deep craving to return to our old lives (as reported by CNN US) The cognitive dissonance of COVID-19 (Opinion by Nicole Hemmer: Updated 6:06 PM EDT, Fri April 17, 2020)

“It’s the cognitive dissonance of COVID-19, created not just by a set of personal desires but by a set of conflicting messages from public health officials and politicians across the country. And while some of the conflict does reflect willful misinformation and political manoeuvring — including, most dangerously, from the White House — much of it comes from something Americans as a whole have not faced in generations: ongoing, life-threatening uncertainty.”

Lets just keep things simple and go with the rule of thumb

Cognitive bias is the irrationality in all of us — from our leaders to the average and not so average people, and you. Cognitive biases are systematic patterns of deviation from norm or rationality in judgement – for example: Keeping it simple.

  1. We favour simple-looking options and complete information over complex, ambiguous options. e.g. Belief bias
  2. We simplify numbers and probabilities to make them easier to think about. e.g. Mental accounting

Me this week. The kids want to bake a cake but we’ve run out of flour. The easy thing to keep them happy is to go to the shop and buy flour. But, it’s risky going to the shop. We’ve been told we shouldn’t unless essential. Is cake baking essential? Surely its ok. Maybe we don’t have to bake a cake. Flour is running off the shelf, it must be an essential pantry item – it usually is in our house but we can’t find it on the shelf. Should I put gloves on? What are my chances of walking past someone with COVID-19. No reported cases in my local area. My actual risk seems very low. Ah well, my brain hurts. Off to the shop I go (with the dreaded feeling of being judged for buying a 10kg bag of flour as its either that or a teeny 1kg bag that will last 2 days!)

There are many examples of cognitive dissonance in COVID-19 …

  1. Basically, you can’t leave the house for any reason, but if you have to, then you can.
  2. Masks are useless, but maybe you have to wear one, it can save you, it is useless, but maybe it is mandatory as well.
  3. Stores are closed, except those that are open.
  4. You should not go to hospitals unless you have to go there. Same applies to doctors, you should only go there in case of emergency, provided you are not too sick.
  5. This virus is deadly but still not too scary, except that sometimes it actually leads to a global disaster.
  6. Gloves won’t help, but they can still help.
  7. Everyone needs to stay HOME, but it’s important to GO OUT.
  8. There is no shortage of groceries in the supermarket, but there are many things missing when you go there in the evening, but not in the morning. Sometimes.
  9. You will have many symptoms when you are sick, but you can also get sick without symptoms, have symptoms without being sick, or be contagious without having symptoms. Oh, my God.
  10. It’s better to get some fresh air, but you get looked at very wrong when you get some fresh air, and most importantly, you don’t go to parks or walk. But don’t sit down, except that you can do that now if you are old, but not for too long or if you are pregnant (but not too old).

and the list goes on…..

  1. The virus has no effect on children except those it affects.
  2. Animals are not affected, but there is still a cat that tested positive in Belgium in February when no one had been tested, plus a few tigers here and there…
  3. In order not to get sick, you have to eat well and exercise, but eat whatever you have on hand because it’s better not to go out, well, but no…
  4. You can’t go to retirement homes, but you have to take care of the elderly and bring them food and medication.
  5. If you are sick, you can’t go out, but you can go to the pharmacy.
  6. You can get restaurant food delivered to the house, which may have been prepared by people who didn’t wear masks or gloves. But you have to have your groceries decontaminated outside for 3 hours. Pizza too?
  7. Every disturbing article or disturbing interview starts with ” I don’t want to trigger panic, but…”
  8. You can’t see your older mother or grandmother, but you can take a taxi and meet an older taxi driver.
  9. You can walk around with a friend but not with your family if they don’t live under the same roof.
  10. You are safe if you maintain the appropriate social distance, but you can’t go out with friends or strangers at the safe social distance.
  11. The virus remains active on different surfaces for two hours, no, four, no, six, no, we didn’t say hours, maybe days? But it takes a damp environment. Oh no, not necessarily.
  12. We count the number of deaths but we don’t know how many people are infected as we have only tested so far those who were “almost dead” to find out if that’s what they will die of…
  13. We have no treatment, except that there may be one that apparently is not dangerous unless you take too much (which is the case with all medications). Orange man bad.
  14. We should stay locked up until the virus disappears, but it will only disappear if we achieve collective immunity, so when it circulates… but wait…we must no longer be locked up for that?

What examples of cognitive dissonance are you aware of? It is worth reflecting on how cognitive dissonance impacts our own behaviour and the wider community during a pandemic such as COVID-19 and how we move forward.


[1] (REF: Dhami. S; The Foundations of Behavioural Economics; 19.11 Dual process Models and judgement heuristics)

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