It's hardly news that the human mind is riddled with biases. Wikipedia has a list of a whopping 124 of them. Here on Inc.com I've detailed some of the most common and harmful. But while we all know people are far from constantly rational, there's nothing like a crisis to bring our mental quirks to the fore.
And I'm not just talking about the irrational urge to hoard toilet paper. Even sober-minded business leaders trying to make thoughtful decisions are often led astray by biases, according to a recent article for the MIT Sloan Management Review by Thomas Davenport, a professor at Babson College and fellow at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.
"Cognitive decision biases are likely to appear in highly changeable, high-stress environments, influencing decisions in damaging ways," he writes, describing the current crisis to a T.
There's nothing you can do to completely eliminate these hardwired quirks, but you can inform yourself about them so you can watch out for ways they might be distorting your thinking and correct for them.
Here are a handful of biases Davenport thinks are particularly relevant in our current crisis, as well as quick tips on how to avoid them:
Status quo bias. "The status quo bias involves considering the current state of affairs to be optimal and anything different as a loss," Davenport writes. "The way to push past this bias is to ask, 'Would I plan this same event/flight/meeting today, given today's situation?'" he adds.
Confirmation bias. One of the most common biases, confirmation bias causes us to "search for and pay more heed to information that supports our own views," he explains. "The key to avoiding confirmation bias about the virus is to seek out sources that may contradict your biases and that are well-supported by respected information sources like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's coronavirus site, and the World Health Organization's equivalent site."
Availability heuristic. We all sat up and took notice when we learned Tom Hanks had the virus. "But the availability of information about high-profile sufferers of the virus may shine light on atypical factors in the pandemic and may make us overlook more important patterns around the spread of the disease," Davenport warns. "Instead, in general, it's more useful to pay attention to the data about a situation than to highly available anecdotes."
Framing effect. Many current debates about the virus are framed as "save the economy or lock everything down," Davenport notes, but "binary, either/or framing is often suboptimal. It masks the possibility of other alternatives, or pursuing one decision in some places or situations and a different one in others. If possible, consider multiple different framings of the same decision -- ideally, some with nonbinary outcomes."
Bandwagon effect. It's not just skirt lengths that rise and fall with the fashions, so do particular takes on the situation. Try as best you can not to jump on these bandwagons. "The nature of these topic-of-the-moment dialogues is that they often grow fast and full of inaccuracies until clearer thinking shuts them down," cautions Davenport.
These are only a handful of the many biases Davenport goes into, so if you find his suggestions helpful, definitely check out the complete article for more information.