Bad news about the pandemic: we’re not getting back to normal any time soon

Credit: Timothy A. Clary Getty Images

(Gleb Tsipursky/Scientific American) — As the vast majority of businesses and states have tried to reopen and people rush back to public life, they’ve run headlong into the trap of “getting back to normal.” They didn’t realize we’re heading into a period of waves of restrictions once again, due to many states reopening too soon.

Indeed, some of the states to open early onward have already reimposed some restrictions, showing that, as I predicted in a newspaper editorial back in early March, we will be facing rolling waves of restrictions and shutdowns until we have a vaccine, and that we need to focus much more on virtual interactions. To avoid the trap of normalcy, we need to understand the parallels between what’s going on now, and what happened at the start of the pandemic.

Many prominent business and political leaders downplayed the pandemic in its early stages. As a result, most business owners and ordinary citizens initially perceived the pandemic as little worse than the common cold.

This initial impression cemented their beliefs about the threat posed by COVID-19. In neuroscience and behavioral economics research, scientists like me call such initial impressions an “anchor.” Our minds tend to fall into a dangerous judgment error called the anchoring bias, or focalism, where we give too much credit to the initial piece of information we received on a topic and perceive the rest of the information through the filter of that initial impression.

That means as new information became available about the danger of COVID-19, people stuck to their initial impressions. They felt very reluctant to change their minds based on new evidence. (…)

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