I’ve been wanting to comment on all the examples of bad thinking and cognitive traps that I’ve seen regarding coronavirus for a while now, well since early February for sure, but I’ve hesitated to put them down in writing because there is already too much content drawing spurious links to this horrible pandemic. But as we see signs that the infection curves are beginning to flatten in some countries (although certainly not all), it strikes me that good thinking will be just as critical as we work to recover our economies and manage the continuing threat of disease. So what follows is a compilation of some of the best and worst thinking practices revealed so far this year. (There are many so expect at least two posts.)
I was convinced the reports of a new, SARS-like disease in China were significant by mid-January. On 16 January I spoke at a conference that had a sizable contingent of attendees from Seattle and I remember fretting that Seattle would likely be one of the first American cities to get hit by coronavirus given the Chinese population on the West Coast and the travel patterns associated with Lunar New Year. I started tweeting and posting on Facebook about the disease in the second half of January and by late February it dominated my posts. Friends have asked me why I was so sure the disease would pose such a threat and I answered with one of my favorite heuristics from my CIA years: ACTIONS REVEAL INTENTIONS AND MOTIVATIONS.
When you’re trying to figure out a government or actor’s intentions, it’s always best to start with their actions. Pay attention to what they are doing. Given China’s obsession with economic growth and how the Communist Party’s legitimacy rested on delivering prosperity, I could not imagine why China would have closed down one of its most important cities out of an “abundance of caution”—a good name for a new rock band. The coronavirus had scared the shit out of the Chinese Government and the most reasonable explanation was that it was contagious and dangerous.
When we began to see reports of massive disinfection campaigns and attacks on Chinese doctors who issued first warnings, I began to wonder what Beijing was trying to hide, if anything. Of course there was immediate speculation that coronavirus was some type of bioweapon; I’m no expert on this issue so I have to accept the judgment that the virus is not man-made. But the possibility that coronavirus leaked because of an industrial mishap or accidental discharge remains credible to me. Recent reports that the Chinese Government is controlling research into the origins of coronavirus just further pique my suspicions. Actions reveal intentions and motivations.
When I actually shared this view on social media a few weeks ago, several friends criticized me for going there. Why, I wondered. It wasn’t like the Chinese Government was known for its transparency and complete honesty. Why couldn’t these ideas be entertained? My answer in part is that IDEOLOGY OFTEN COLORS HOW WE THINK. There are so many examples of this dynamic spanning the ideological spectrum.
- Advocates of globalization loathe to admit that China might have deceived other countries.
- Supporters of the international system reluctant to criticize the World Health Organization.
- Proponents of American exceptionalism insisting, against a lot of evidence, that the US has had the best response to the coronavirus.
- Backers of the President condemning any suggestion that the US could have acted more quickly to contain the disease.
- Critics of the President attacking his decision to limit travel from China in late January, although it was clearly the right thing to do. The more valid criticism is that it didn’t go far enough and there were too many loopholes.
And countless other examples we could mention. Because this is such a terrifying disease, it’s natural for people to fall back upon their values and ideological beliefs to interpret events. It’s natural but not helpful. In fact, it’s dangerous. Our beliefs lead us to ignore facts that don’t fit our ideology and overamplify developments that do. Unfortunately this thinking weakness will haunt our recovery efforts, particularly in the US where our politics have become exceptionally poisonous.
One important caveat: our ideology and values will play an unavoidable role going forward as we think about levels of acceptable risk. To my knowledge there is no objective way to measure the value of a human life. In the months to come we will be trading hundreds if not thousands of lives for decimals of economic growth. Your values are what will determine how you solve that equation. Less-polarized societies will find it easier to agree on the solution. The math will be difficult for the US. (And let me add that the very idea that this can be thought of as a math problem is anathema to many.)
I spoke at a conference in D.C. on 6 February about cognitive traps and used the emerging disease for my examples. The one cognitive bias that was most evident then is that WORST-CASE SCENARIOS ARE ALWAYS CONSIDERED UNLIKELY. In early February few people were expecting the disease to ravage Western Europe and the US and painted any such thinking as worst-case scenarios. Indeed, the first deaths did not occur in Italy until the last week of February. And yet it was reasonable to assume, I thought, that the disease could easily flare up in any country with connections to China, which was basically any place on the planet.
If you’re an analyst responsible for warning, remember that when you paint the most dangerous scenarios as worst-case, you make it easier for the decision-maker to dismiss them. And that’s what appears to have happened in the US government. Impact and probability need to be thought of as independent variables. Some category of “worst-case” scenario happens every year; the only “unlikely” aspect of “worst-case” scenarios is the ability to predict their timing. We are unable to know with precision when a dangerous development will occur, but we are sure to experience several in our lifetimes.
Humans have been flourishing on this planet for tens of thousands of years, solving many problems (and, of course, creating others). We can assume that almost all the easy problems have been solved and many of the hard ones as well. Going forward, most of our problems will be difficult to handle and few, if any, will have clear-cut solutions. Only good thinking will help.