The current pandemic has highlighted a glaring gap within most people’s education: learning how to think. What do I mean by ‘learning how to think?’ Those four words could be the tagline of most higher-education institutions. At least, that is a common perception. Yet, despite the ease of access to scientific data and recommendations from experts, the approach to handling COVID-19 is more fractured than ever. Many people still vehemently refuse to wear masks and social distance. Everyone has a reason and will readily express their opinion. Why is there so much disagreement despite everyone having the same data available?
Emotion trumps logic
Our decisions are heavily impacted by heuristics and bias. Heuristics are mental shortcuts we subconsciously apply to improve efficiencies. These ‘rule of thumb’ strategies are mental shortcuts which are often referred to as common sense. Unfortunately, the commonsense approach comes with a cost. The accuracy of our judgments falters when relying on said shortcuts. When I write “we do not learn how to think,” I am referring to understanding how our mind makes decisions and the intricacies of biases and cognitive fallacies. As James Zull wrote in The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning, “our emotions influence our thinking more than our thinking influences our emotions.” Thinking critically and addressing biases takes effort.
Common biases we all experience
Currently, biases are running rampant across social media and news outlets. Here three common biases we all fall victim to:
- Confirmation bias: Only reading and regurgitating information that supports an adopted opinion and readily dismissing any evidence, regardless of the validity, that refutes it.
- Availability bias: Only using information that readily comes to mind, typically it is the most recent information gathered (recency effect).
- Present bias: We prefer the immediate, tangible benefit over the larger, future reward (think toddler snack challenge).
It doesn’t take long to find examples of all three when scrolling your social media news feed. Biases can never be eliminated. We develop mental short-cuts to sift through the overwhelming amount of information available at any given moment. But we can certainly learn to recognize and manage our bias. We can learn to slow down, critically assess, and make rational decisions. When do we learn how to do this? For most of us, it requires self-education.
Bias isn’t talked about in school. This is a problem.
As a physical therapist, I received substantial technical training, such as anatomy, exercise prescription, and medical screening in my doctoral program. They even sprinkled in some empathy and health promotion training. They did not, however, train me in heuristics or biases.
When faced with a challenging clinical situation, instead of asking “what is the most evidence-based treatment I could apply for this patient presentation?” I may be tempted to ask “what type of treatment have I successfully used in the past for this patient presentation?” One of those options is safer, easier, and more predictable, but not always in the best interest of the patient. We see similar substitutions occurring during the pandemic. Wearing a mask is inconvenient, as is social distancing, so what question can I ask myself to justify ignoring these recommendations? It is why people readily cite the frequency of asymptomatic cases or death rates alone while ignoring the lasting damage to the lungs or nervous system.
In school, we are taught decision-making strategies for our given subject of study, but they are typically in the form of recognizing facts that point to a logical decision. Healthcare providers are instructed to memorize algorithms, clinical prediction rules, testing clusters, and clinical practice guideline data. We don’t learn that we are more apt to accept any information, no matter the validity or reliability, that confirms our beliefs while immediately rejecting anything that challenges them. Our brain craves congruency and will make up stories to fit the narrative it develops. As soon as the narrative is challenged, our mental armor is fully engaged.
I point out this lack of training for healthcare providers because the stakes are so high. Healthcare providers receive a doctorate and post-doctorate training, yet biases and cognitive fallacy rarely find their way into the curriculum. This is a problem.
Critical thinking and understanding bias and heuristics must become a staple of all higher education. It is not a stretch to introduce biases in grade school when we are first forming the foundation of our critical decision making. Again, we cannot eliminate bias. But we can be vigilant and recognize their presence, allowing for course corrections when needed.
A silver lining of the current pandemic is the stress it applies. Problems that may have previously gone unnoticed or were swept under the rug are now glaring. The issue of critical thinking is even more paramount given the COVID-19 pandemic. Emotions are near an all-time high and opinions are never in short supply. We are more apt to lean on our intuition and initial thoughts, increasing the risk of falling victim to cognitive fallacies. This is preventing from tackling the pandemic as a unified front.
Zach is a physical therapist, researcher, and educator whose mission is to challenge the way clinicians think and close the information gap between clinicians and laypersons. Receive a biweekly newsletter containing his latest blog posts, recent research and articles on critical thinking and healthy living, and recommended books at zacharywalston.com.