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Can we be rational during the pandemic?

By Pedro Del Carpio for El Comercio (Perú)

Imagen de artículo en diario El Comercio
Article written by Pedro Del Carpio, CEO of Heurística, for a well known peruvian newspaper "El Comercio"

We have all witnessed - and perhaps participated in - situations that jeopardize efforts to control the pandemic, such as improperly wearing masks, being part of crowds in markets and shopping malls, or participating in social events. Some have even gone so far as to attend parties and speakeasies.

Looking at these facts we can jump to question their rationality. After all, why would anyone risk infecting themselves and those close to them?

The answer is not simple. However, knowing the complexity and nuances behind this problem is essential to design public policies with a better chance of success. Let's explore some ideas.

A strictly "rational" person is the one who decides by evaluating the consequences of the different alternatives and the probability of each of them occurring. Based on this calculation, he or she chooses the option that finally offers the greatest benefit.

But in everyday life it is rare for us to follow such a rational process deliberately. Instead, we use mental shortcuts - or simple decision rules - that are usually sufficient to achieve our goals. For example, if in a restaurant we are torn between several options, a good tactic is to simply take the recommendation of the person serving us.

However, in some contexts, mental shortcuts can lead us to make the wrong decisions. Behavioral sciences suggest the presence of different psychological phenomena that could explain our risky actions during the pandemic. Let us consider three:

  1. Due to the optimism bias, we tend to underestimate the probability of negative events happening to us. Therefore, we may fail to take precautions with the idea that "it won't happen to us", even if we have no statistical reason to think so.

  2. As with fashions, under the pull effect, when we see that the majority of people share an opinion or preference - in this case regarding how acceptable a behavior is - we will be more likely to adopt it as well, without having to question it further. Let us never forget the great psychological need we have to fit in with the group. For example, if at a site we notice that the majority are not complying with the use of masks or the minimum safe distance, this observation could be enough to validate the behavior and, perhaps, imitate it.

  3. The larger the group in which we find ourselves, the more likely we are to expect someone else to take the initiative for correct behavior, due to the diffusion effect of our sense of responsibility on others. For example, if we find ourselves in a crowd of people and feel it necessary to ask the group to step back, we are likely to wait for someone else to act. As a result, perhaps no one else will.

Stopping our analysis at this point is dangerous, because it could invite us to pigeonhole all risky behavior as irrational. It's not that simple. As the great marketer Rory Sutherland says, "Never call a behavior irrational until you really know what the person is trying to do."

Perhaps those who act in a risky manner during the pandemic have made an intuitive calculation that, on the basis of the information they have and the reality they live in, effectively considers the consequences and probabilities of the alternatives. As we have seen, under this assumption their actions would be normatively correct.

However, it is clear that this last possibility has a clear ethical limit. In community we must also avoid affecting the welfare of others. Especially in scenarios such as the current one.

Because of all this inevitable complexity, any public or private effort that seeks to influence people's behavior needs to be built on a deep understanding of our decision-making process. Whether these are "rational" or not.


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