I’d like you to do an experiment. Go back two, three, or four weeks in your Facebook and twitter timeline. What were you saying and believing about the coronavirus?

Did you downplay it? Comparing it to the flu? Maybe you even thought it was a hoax?

Don’t condemn yourself as a fool or alternatively try to justify and rewrite your personal history. The exercise isn’t about judgment, but asking WHY your thinking and decision-making model was off?

When we encounter information that runs contrary to what we thought, we are afforded two options:

  1. Come up with a rationalization or justification for why we thought what we did. In other words, weave a story to make our past beliefs seem plausible in the current environment
  2. Readjust our beliefs. Update our mental model

The easier option is the first. Creating a story is far easier than going against the feeling that comes with the fact that we were wrong. Correcting often means a hit on our sense of self or ego.

When it comes to small errors, we often choose rationalization, but major crisis that send our worldview for a spin offer an opportunity. It’s harder to justify or weave a coherent story, so it forces us to confront the mismatch between our prior views and the current world.

I’d challenge you to use this as an opportunity to update how you think about complex subjects and make decisions. If you were ‘wrong’, it’s okay. Lots and lots of really smart people were. But consider asking why you were? What sources of information did you rely on to form your former view? Did you rely on the media, experts, secondary sources? We’re you basing your decision on the fact none of the recent virus scares amounted to much? Did your peer group influence your decision making? Or maybe being inundated with friends’ Facebook posts about toilet paper and panic clouded your judgment?

Whatever it is, do a deep dive and ask, why was your model incorrect?

One of the reasons we struggle with understanding complex concepts with a  lot of uncertainty (like the coronavirus) is that most of our decision making models involve looking back at our own past and using that to project the future. The reason why “this is just like the flu” circulated is because that is most of ours best example of a virus that spreads around the world and kills a number of people. When we face an unknown, we look for the best comparison point. That comparison point then becomes our base rate, or norm, that we evaluate the new threat with. For others, maybe you compared it to past scares like H1N1 or the ebola virus. You think, “that wasn’t that bad” and move on.

A lot of our decision making model for uncertain threats or ideas relies on our feelings. How they make us feel impacts what we think about them. A feeling of panic and anxiety? Pushes us towards evaluating the new data through a different lens than if we feel at peace and like life is normal. Feelings become a shortcut for evaluation.

Problems arise when our comparison point is widely off, like in this case. For most of us alive, we’ve never faced anything like COVID-19. So we don’t have an accurate barometer from the past to rely on.

When we’re dealing with unknown or uncertain threats, we can’t rely on our look at the past to predict the future heuristic. We need a better model.

And that’s what going through this exercise has taught me. I was ‘wrong’ on a number of things related to this virus. It’s caused me to refining my decision making model for uncertain events or threats. My model is as follows:

  • Science- What does the research say?
  • Real World Practice- What do experts and people with skin in the game seem to be doing and saying. (i.e. early on South Korea had success doing X strategy)
  • Theory- Is there a plausible explanation/theory that fits what’s going on.
  • History- What can we pull from history that is similar to what we’re going through.

This is a variation of a model I’ve used for years, but after going through this I’ve had to update what I put weight on. For example, when it comes to science, I know I need to understand the basics of primary research. And if I don’t, know what experts to listen to. No, It’s not possible to be an expert on everything, but having a basic grasp of how to read research across fields eliminates the middleman trying to explain it. I realize that I need to update my knowledge on statistical analysis. No, I’m not ever going to be a master at it, but enough so that I can understand at a basic level what’s going on.

That’s just one example and I could go on, but it’s important to evaluate how your making decisions about the unknown. The model I use is designed to remind me to perform checks on multiple sources of information and ways of thinking before making a decision.

I think it’s important to have a framework that checks different assumptions. Think of it as your own little checks and balance for decision making. A quick example, but it seems the UK relied heavily on theory for their initial strategy and largely ignored what other countries who were facing the crisis were doing. All well and good, but there was an error in their assumptions in the theory they were utilizing. So they’ve switched gears now that they’ve identified that. Maybe if instead of being overly reliant on there model, they balanced that out with looking at what was currently successful in the world. Looking at countries like South Korea or Singapore or Hong Kong as examples of different strategies that seemed to be working. I’m not blaming the UK, as we all are going to get a lot wrong in the current state, but it seems a nice example of why we need decision making frameworks that challenge us to think through problems from multiple different angles.

All we still going to get things wrong? Of course. But in today’s wild world, it might be a good opportunity to update how you’re making decisions.  

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