Mar 13, 2020
Coronavirus (or COVID-19) is
everywhere on the news, and everyone's talking about it. The
statistics and status of outbreaks are changing rapidly, and there
is uncertainty around the virus. I can't answer all of the
questions surrounding this issue…(no one can at this point) but
I hope this episode will help you understand a little bit
more about how the human brain responds to pandemics. I'm going to
talk about how the way our brains work affects our reactions in
situations like this.
We'll start with an example of
framing. What do you think of when you hear a “state of emergency”
is declared? I live in Washington where we had the first
coronavirus death and the first state of emergency declared in the
US. California is the second state to have declared a state of
emergency. “State of emergency” is a name that doesn’t help contain
public fear. I understand why it's called this and why it's
important to declare it…but…talk about a framing
I also talk about the focusing
illusion and how focusing on something makes it seem more
significant. I'll cover several other concepts that apply to what
goes through our minds in times of uncertainty, danger, fear, and
panic. I'll also cover opportunities to make the most of things and
lots and lots of informative links to help you educate yourself
about the current situation.
It is important to note that
the information about coronavirus specifically is changing rapidly
– what I put in my notes and record today will not be accurate by
the time this goes live on March 13 and after. Also, there is no
judgment or criticism of choices any person or country or entity
has made. The intention of this episode is to explain how our
brains are wired to work during times of uncertainty, like the
- [02:54] I've been reading a lot about
coronavirus lately, and it's a big deal. I live in Washington state
where we had the first recorded coronavirus death in the
- [03:32] Declaring a state of emergency is
definitely a framing issue. When the brain hears this, it doesn't
take it lightly. It wonders what the emergency means and creates
more panic than is helpful.
- [03:58] The human brain has a lot of capacity
to process information: when given something new and unknown it
will run rampant.
- [04:15] Our brains will over analyze and freak
out a little bit. Focusing on something will make it feel more
important or significant. This is the focusing
- [04:36] Our counterfactual and
prefactual thinking will
also ramp up and go into overdrive.
- [04:59] A lack of control is a breeding ground
for fear and a brain bonanza.
- [05:19] New or unknown things are scary,
because we can't categorize them using the concept of
have nothing to compare it to.
- [06:17] Probability
neglect is where we
drastically overestimate our own personal risk in a
- [07:21] We also have a zero risk
bias where we would rather
eliminate all the risk we can.
- [08:37] Our inability to properly understand
probabilities and aversion to risk AND need for control AND
penchant for the status quo all combine in the worst possible way
when we are confronted with an unknown, highly contagious
- [09:05] Availability
bias is when our brains
believe what we hear most often to be true.
- [10:47] I want to make sure everyone knows that
I know we are talking about real humans – each of those numbers
represents a person: mother, father, sister, brother, friend. I do
not take this lightly as I share the details throughout the
- [13:20] Why don't we hear about (or get as
scared by) the flu-related deaths that happen every year? It's
because we've all had the flu, and it's a known
- [14:02] Our availability bias says that flu is
annoying, but it's not that big of a deal.
- [14:37] The recommendations to stop the threat
of coronavirus are the exact same recommendations to stop
- [15:18] Availability bias is a huge culprit in
the reaction to the coronavirus. The focus is on the scary
- [16:32] The unknown variables of the
coronavirus are what make it really scary to the brain.
- [17:47] We need to maintain these better
habits that will
keep us healthier and happier well into the future.
- [18:02] Why is it so difficult to change
habits? We are used to habits. We have subconscious rules stuck in
- [20:30] Changing habits takes diligence at the
beginning, and continued effort to maintain. Conscious processing
can only do so much work at the same time.
- [21:44] Before you react, stop and ask if your
behavior is rational or if you need this. Take a moment to breathe
- [22:36] One other problem we have when it comes
to changing behavior, is our brain’s natural risk
when we do one thing good, we feel justified slacking on something
- [23:52] If we can all do only one thing well to
fight the spread of viruses, because that one thing has a bunch of
hidden steps, we should be focusing on the one thing that is proven
to be most effective.
- [24:20] No one wants to be diagnosed with
coronavirus. The mentality of staying home and not getting tested
for fear of what others will think is a combination of
an ostrich or head in the sand type of response.
- [26:11] If people don't self-quarantine or get
tested when they get sick, there will be more outbreaks. It's our
brains natural reaction to avoid
risk, but it's best to get
- [27:47] One person making a rash and extreme
decision can cause a huge chain reaction that is difficult to
- [30:13] When we feel a lack of control, of
uncertainty, like we do when a novel virus is spreading around the
world, we get scared and the brain looks for something to do and
- [31:29] This is an opportunity to revisit the
way you have always done things.
- [32:59] What can you be doing today, while
people aren’t traveling and the status quo is already disrupted, to
look at your offering and find opportunities to make your company
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