Mind and Body

3 strategies for not falling for 5 Covid-19 mental traps

To overcome Covid-19, we have to stop thinking in “black in white”

Throughout 2020, Covid-19 has swept across the planet, transforming our lives and livelihoods.

In many ways, the response to it has also created information overload, confusing the public.

Thomas Tolstrup

Making sense of this “infodemic,” as some researchers call it, is a tall order in a public health crisis that's constantly evolving.

It can feel impossible to sort through the mixed messages. In turn, people often cope by jumping to conclusions.

"When people hear a lot of information, and on top of it contradictory information, they're going to think fast. They're going to think more emotionally. And they're going to take less time to make a rational decision of what's right and what's wrong."

— Mike Varshavski, family physician.

However, oversimplification causes people to fall into mental traps and split complex nuanced topics into false, binary categories.

This black and white thinking is not just inaccurate. Experts say it's also making us miserable.

To overcome Covid-19 and come out “in one piece,” researchers say it’s time to embrace shades of gray in science. Being creative and looking at issues across a gradient will actually equip us with more tools to end the pandemic.

In a recent, not-yet-peer-reviewed pre-print paper, a team of scientists lay out the most common false dilemmas people face.

These "false dilemmas" are two extreme scenarios pitted against each other. The actual solution or answer is often somewhere in the middle.

Here are five examples. >>

A figure from the new paper.

Co-author Angela Rasmussen is a leading virologist and science communicator at Columbia University School of Public Health.

She says these false dilemmas are exactly that: false. We don't have to choose one or the other.

"Start thinking in shades of gray rather than black and white. Because we all know that we live in a world that's mostly shades of gray. There were very few things in life that are either one or the other."

— Dr. Angela Rasmussen

"Apply that same understanding of the complexity of the world that we all live in to scientific discoveries and trying to understand the pandemic. It is a really complicated situation where there are not a lot of easy answers."

— Dr. Angela Rasmussen

To avoid falling into common Covid-19 mental traps, Rasmussen and Varshavski suggest:

1. Embrace complexity: Be open to data and do your research from multiple sources. Don't take a new discovery or headline at face value.

2. Look at solutions continuously: No single vaccine or treatment will be the "instant end" to the pandemic. Instead, each strategy is a step in the right direction.

3. Pause before reacting: Avoid "thinking fast" and making decisions out of fear. Take a breath and ask what are the facts here?

"You have to be okay with the unknown, that perhaps science doesn't have a clear answer. We have to take evidence as it comes, then adjust our actions, not just say, 'Okay, how do I simplify this?'"

— Dr. Mike Varshavski

Nora Carol Photography

As the pandemic progresses, concrete answers will become more clear. In the meantime, focus on what you can control: wearing masks, social distancing, and washing your hands.

"By thinking about things as a multitude of options, rather than only two outcomes, it helps me feel better because I know that there are still a lot of things that we can do to get out of this in one piece."

— Dr. Angela Rasmussen

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