Cognitive biases during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed several irrational behaviors in people, from hoarding toilet paper and alcohol to resorting to tuob or steam inhalation to help one recover from Covid-19. Much of these had been prompted by fear, affecting how people think.

But after seven months under quarantine, several cognitive biases have emerged that led to these irrational behaviors and, ultimately, equally illogical decisions with good or bad consequences.

One of them is fear of missing out, or FOMO. It’s a social anxiety a person experiences that stems from his or her belief that others might be having fun while he or she is not around. We see this in people joining online workouts and cooking classes, watch new films on Netflix or try new mobile apps, like Facebook’s currently popular avatars.

These are triggered by the constant bombardment of digital alternatives to our normal lives pre-Covid, complemented by the fact people see their friends and others doing such activities on social media.

Second are the herd mentality and bandwagon effect. Herd mentality is a term describing how people can be influenced by their peers to adopt a certain behavior on a largely emotional, rather than rational, basis. This leads to the bandwagon effect, in which the rate of the adoption of beliefs, ideas and trends increases in relation to the proportion of others who already did.

We see this now in people rabidly hoarding plants and gardening tools, driving up their prices rapidly. This is again influenced by certain content on social media, often showing celebrities selling plants to augment their income. Moreover, popular media is stressing the need for plants to help alleviate anxiety. These cognitive biases, combined with FOMO, can drive people to hoard things that are popular.

Third is confirmation bias, or the tendency to search for, interpret, favor and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s beliefs or values. We see this in the alarming rise of anti-Asian sentiment, even racism, in which people with these biases block out facts and only consume news that support their views.

Business owners are prone to confirmation bias, especially those who have been operating their businesses for decades, such as those in retail, travel and hospitality. They openly accept any positive indication of rebound and growth from optimists, instead of hearing the contrary and pivoting their business models to new ones.

Fourth is optimism bias, which causes some people to believe they are less likely to experience a negative event. We see this in many people around the world who party with others, go to crowded beaches and converge in bars without wearing any protection.

These people underestimate their chances of contracting the virus, getting sick or infecting others. They also underestimate the deadliness of the coronavirus, comparing it to other, data-rich traditional infectious diseases, like influenza. Combined with confirmation bias, optimism bias can be a powerful force to drive such behavior as holding on to one’s business or not wearing face masks.

These cognitive biases create a blind spot in how we think, which may put us at great risk. To preclude this, we need to think clearly during the crisis.

One strategy is to think in terms of systems. In an earlier column, “Making intelligent decisions amid a crisis” (April 3, 2020), I wrote that “systems thinking is a holistic approach to analyzing a situation that focuses on the way that a system’s constituent parts interrelate and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems.”

I also wrote that “since crisis situations encourage ‘narrow’ thinking, i.e. concentrating on priority information that may lead to missing the bigger picture, systems thinking considers the different components of the system and balancing the processes within the system.” Systems thinking is a slow deliberate kind of thinking, so it requires more energy from us. But it will help us think clearly.

Another strategy is to use the “Craap” (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose) test in evaluating your sources of information. Currency is the timeliness of the information; relevance, the importance of this information for your needs; authority, the source of the information; accuracy, the reliability, truthfulness and correctness of the content; and purpose, the reason the information exists. Passing this test should minimize, if not eliminate, the problems with cognitive biases.

In the end. a combination of logic and diverse ways of thinking would ensure a well-balanced thinking process amid this crisis.


The author is the chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is a fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation and the country representative of the Institute of Change and Transformation Professionals Asia. He also teaches strategic management in the MBA program of De La Salle University. The author may be reached at