Voice of the Community: Maria Recaman
Part 1 of this series set the foundation on the importance of shifting paradigms amidst a global pandemic. For those who are starting with part 2 of my series, part 1 key points were:
- A paradigm is a specific way of understanding the world around us
- Our brain uses shortcuts to organise and interpret information
- What we perceive is substantially different from objective reality
- Crises may bring an opportunity to expand our vision and look in new directions
In this post, I will explore how COVID-19 has changed our present, but will it be enough to change our future?
We know that our brains look to the future by examining the past. For the most part, this mechanism works effectively. However, what happens when it doesn’t? More specifically, why did COVID-19 take us by surprise when the human race has experienced at least four different pandemics in the past 100 years? Did we simply forget about them? The answer may lie within our brain.
Over the past two decades, Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor, has been studying human optimism and the optimism bias. She has concluded that we are more optimistic than realistic. We tend to overestimate our likelihood of experiencing good events and underestimate our chances of experiencing bad ones – this may explain why, in the early stages of COVID-19, we failed to adopt preventive measures like social distancing, as we underestimated our own risk of infection.
On top of that, we also tend to search, interpret, and recall information selectively, favouring what confirms or supports our existing beliefs, and ignoring information that challenges them. This is known as the confirmation bias. It influences not only how we look for and make sense of new information from the outside world, but also how we access our memories to reinforce our future expectations – and this may explain why we downplayed the information we were getting from the news and various experts or why we compared the disease to the seasonal flu.
Interestingly in an article written in April (3 months after the outbreak) it was argued that few infectious disease researchers were surprised when another coronavirus pandemic broke out: the shared view was that all conditions were set, and it was just a matter of time. Another article, also published in April, cited 12 people, Bill Gates included, who seemingly predicted the coronavirus pandemic. Still, it caught all of us off-guard. These are two examples of the hindsight bias, or our tendency to perceive events that have already occurred as having been more predictable than they actually were. A consequence of it, is that we are less likely to critically look on past decisions and learn from mistakes – this may explain why after the 2009 Swine flu pandemic, only a few countries developed national protocols to be considered in future outbreaks.
In hindsight, it seems our brains didn’t do a good job at managing the global crisis when it first started. Surprisingly, this is not new. Failing to react to a crisis is a very human response. We have already seen how our cognitive biases can get the best of our decisions in low-risk circumstances. Now imagine that happening during a global pandemic. As Nick Chater puts it, “crises rarely see human decision-making operating at its best”.
It may have taken us a while to read the signs and adjust accordingly, but we have adjusted, right? We have been washing our hands, keeping our distance, working from home, elbow bumping friends, joining virtual birthday parties and baking our own bread. According to some world leaders, these behaviours “will live on into the future”. Will they?
On the contrary, as the situation improves and the crisis is contained, what I hear is that we are slowly going back to normal. Back to dining out, back to celebrating birthdays at our friends’ houses, back to the workplace and back to the shops. These are human thing to do, so it’s natural for humans to prefer things to stay the same, even when the positives of introducing change, outweigh the cons.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 changed our present, but will it be enough to change our future?
It is true that a window of possibilities opens in times of turmoil (and a global pandemic is certainly tumultuous), but whether 2020 will go down in history as the year that changed the world, is something we can’t pin on the crisis only. In fact, it is on us, and the decisions that we make as individuals as we move forward, not back.
This is easier said than done. So how do we actually make this happen? If 95% of our decisions are made by our unconscious mind, guided by our past experiences, how do we get better at making decisions?
Going back to our glasses analogy in part 1 of my series, the obvious answer would be to change the lens (paradigm) in order to expand our vision and be able to make better-informed decisions. But, what would that lens look like? Perhaps, what we need is a water-resistant lens.
Because, if we think about an iceberg, much of it is below water and from above, we are only able to see a fraction of it, the tip, while the rest remains out of sight, underwater. The iceberg is a metaphor to represent the visible (conscious) and invisible (unconscious) aspects of our mind. It is also used to symbolise the visible (explicit behaviours) and invisible (implicit beliefs and assumptions) elements of organisational cultures.
This metaphor serves two purposes:
- As we stand above water (with our non-water-resistant glasses), we are only able to see the tip of the iceberg, which is just a small fraction of what is actually there;
- What lies underwater makes the larger part of the whole, but we overlook it and hardly ever question it.
Essentially, we are oblivious to the fact that what is above water is highly influenced by what is below.
So what would the world look like if we wore water-resistant lenses?
Firstly, we would become more aware of our own biases and paradigms, and consequently, more conscious about our own decisions, by critically reflecting on them. As we have seen, biases and paradigms not necessarily have a negative connotation, in fact, we constantly benefit from them. In reference to the optimism bias, for example, Tali Sharot explains: “optimism has lots of benefits…optimism is not only related to success, it leads to success. Optimism leads to success in academia and sports and politics. And maybe the most surprising benefit of optimism is health”. Then, we would “be able to strike a balance, to come up with plans and rules to protect ourselves from unrealistic optimism, but at the same time remain hopeful”. This could be done with our most common biases.
Secondly, by critically reflecting on our own biases and paradigms, we would better understand why we prefer things to stay the same and why sometimes, it is just too difficult to stick to a new behaviour. We would understand that we experience discomfort when our behaviours and beliefs are in conflict, which is often the case when we are introducing change into our lives (known as cognitive dissonance). When that happens, it is usually more costly to accommodate our beliefs to the new behaviour, than the opposite. What this means is that, more often than not, it is easier to return to the previous behaviour than to hold on to the new one (think about all the times you have tried to start a new diet, or new exercise routine, and not being able to stick to it).
This is the reason why expecting the world to change after COVID-19 by solely relying on the new behaviours that we have introduced to our lives, while yearning to go back to normal is so dangerous. Before we know it, we will be back to what we know, what feels comfortable, and ultimately, we will go back to our old ways.
Perhaps what we need is a simple and significant paradigm shift to continuously and consciously remind ourselves that no paradigm is true, as it is merely one possible representation of our own reality.
Coming up in Part 3: I explore the paradigm shift in the spaces we live and work in, and what our new paradigms could look like.