Humans are not hardwired to react to a threat of the magnitude of COVID-19, but policy-makers can take steps to make sure better decisions are made.

Unless you are Bill Gates, or a particularly prescient expert in public health, I doubt you saw COVID-19 coming. But now that it’s here, it has changed our lives in every way.

We certainly did not underestimate the coronavirus because of a lack of information. Reports of the “novel coronavirus” were making the news as early as Christmastime. Since March, when the virus became more prominent in Canada, the media have covered it extensively, providing updates almost hourly.

Instead, we failed to identify the true threat of COVID-19 due to errors of cognition and judgement. What are the biases that caused us to underestimate the virus? Research into decision-making and cognitive bias can help us understand where we went wrong and how to improve the way we make decisions in the future.

Data confusion

There is no shortage of data for COVID-watchers, but the data has been treacherous. The virus’s long incubation period and the lack of available tests in some jurisdictions made the data look better than it was.

Even more insidious is what researchers of household finance refer to as the “exponential growth fallacy”. The typical brain underestimates how rapid exponential growth really is. For example, if the number infected doubles every four days (lower than Canada’s growth rate at the time of writing) then 10,000 cases now will have spread to more than a million before the month has passed.

There is more work to do, but Canadian governments are better equipped to deal with unfamiliar data than they were a few years ago. “Results and delivery units” now exist in many major departments, including at Privy Council Office in Ottawa; these groups analyze data related to key priorities and present their findings to senior decision makers, including the prime minister. At the same time, Statistics Canada has shown increasing adaptability in assembling data to respond to crises, like when it offered maps to help first responders identify vulnerable populations during this winter’s Newfoundland snowstorm, or in current efforts to assemble a dashboard of key economic indicators for tracking the impact of COVID-19.

Dependence on experience

Usually we rely on experience to make decisions, but nothing in our experience could help us understand what was about to happen next. For many, COVID-19 was viewed as some sort of flu, the kind of illness we see every flu season.

Famous behavioural scientists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman theorized on how we use experience to understand the future. We sort experiences into different classes, which are representative of what to expect from emerging threats and opportunities. The “representativeness bias” gets us into trouble when our new situation does not fit well with the class of experience that we are using to predict its outcome. In the case of COVID-19, a typical flu is hardly representative.

One way to combat representativeness bias is with diversity. Canada’s public service has an impressive diversity record, but it will take a sustained effort to continue to integrate new voices and ensure that they are heard. The frenzied adoption of telework arrangements under social distancing conditions may open up new opportunities for a public service that draws on voices from outside the national capital region, including in Indigenous communities — at least where internet speeds can support it.

A preference for good news


As COVID-19 began to hit Canada, it was easy to overvalue the positive news: the cases were travel related, the death rate was low, China was beginning to “flatten the curve.”

“Wishful thinking,” or the “valence effect,” is the idea that our preferences tend to dictate our expectations. We are biased to expect that good things will happen next. Researchers have documented the valence effect with a deck of cards, some with angry faces and some with smiles. When asked to guess what card would come up next, participants were more likely to anticipate what they wanted to see.

Life rarely comes up all smiles, so it is important that decision-makers have opportunities to encounter bad news. Do such opportunities exist in today’s public service? In his early 2018 report, noting the “incomprehensible failure” of the Phoenix Pay System, former auditor general Michael Ferguson took a swing at public service culture, alleging, “The willingness to convey hard truths has eroded.” On the other hand, Canada’s ethical code for public servants still supports the idea that bad news should come forward. The guide asks federal employees to show respect for democracy by “providing decision-makers with all the information, analysis and advice they need, always striving to be open, candid and impartial.” The quick adjustments made by Canadian governments in response to the advice of experts like Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam suggests that the ethic of open and impartial advice has at least been effective in the current crisis.

Gender differences

Late in March, an Abacus Data poll asked Canadians how worried they were by COVID-19; 47 percent of females reported being extremely worried, compared to only 32 percent of males.

The Abacus poll fits with some research that suggests women are more risk-sensitive than men are. Although we should interpret these findings carefully, differences in the way women and men respond to risk do appear in a variety of studies (a report from Harvard’s Gender Action Panel is just one example).

Again, the response should be to seek diversity among decision makers. Canada’s gender-balanced cabinet is an excellent example; less known is the fact there is near gender-parity in the senior ranks of the public service, complimented by policies requiring gender-based analysis as a part of every federal budget submission. These policies may have contributed to Canada’s response to the virus, which has at least been quicker than some jurisdictions.

Overconfidence

In the end, our underestimation of COVID-19 might be easiest to describe as overconfidence. Overconfidence is hard to avoid. In one fascinating study, participants were asked how certain they were that they knew how to spell difficult words. When the participants stated they were 100 per cent certain they were right, they spelled the words correctly only 80 percent of the time. In a 2011 New York Times article, Daniel Kahneman described ways he had observed the phenomenon in his own research over the years since. It is also easy to think of examples of overconfidence in our own lives.

One solution to all of these problems is humility, a willingness to set aside our best-laid plans, and pivot to something else when it is clear we are wrong. Government leaders at all levels in Canada have shown an admirable humility in their willingness to make adjustments in the fight against COVID-19. Already it is clear that our leaders’ willingness to adapt will lead to stronger health and economic outcomes, both now and over the longer term.

Some errors of judgement may seem unavoidable; it is almost as if we are hardwired to make mistakes. However, Canada’s response to COVID-19 makes it clear enough that, with a diverse group of decision-makers, a careful interpretation of the data, a commitment to honesty, and, most of all, humility, we can improve our chances of making the right decision at the right time.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Julia Lazebnaya.