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Cognitive Bias and My Family’s COVID-19 Bubble Agreement

Updated: Dec 30, 2020

The uncertainty, fear, and misinformation we experience in crisis situations can lead to poor decision making. And poor decision making can be a matter of life or death. This article includes examples of six cognitive biases that are particularly relevant during a pandemic and an agreement I developed to frame a discussion about establishing a quarantine bubble.

Decision Making In Times of Uncertainty

We are all subject to cognitive biases that impair our judgement. Layer on a significant amount of uncertainty and our judgment only gets worse. Awareness of biases themselves might not reduce errors in thinking, but understanding them in a specific context can help us surface actionable strategies to improve the decision we make.

Included below are a six assumptions I’m making about human behavior during a pandemic:

  1. We tend to underestimate the likelihood of disaster striking us (e.g., the United States in February 2020).

  2. We tend to rely on immediate examples when evaluating a situation (e.g., I don’t personally know anyone who has gotten sick, so things must not be that bad).

  3. We tend to preserve our independence and this might make us less likely to adhere to expert recommendations that we perceive as limiting our freedom (e.g., physical distancing).

  4. We tend to focus on information we want to believe and ignore information we don’t want to believe (e.g., If I want to believe something is safe, I can find an “expert” who tells me I have nothing to worry about).

  5. We tend to believe that negative outcomes are less likely to happen to oneself than to others (e.g., spreading/contracting the virus).

  6. We tend to adopt the normative beliefs and behaviors of what we see adopted by others (e.g., engaging in non-essential activities).*

Given these biases, I look for tools to guide my decision making rather than trust my instinct. The big decision for my family at the moment has been whether or not to break quarantine to form a social bubble with my in-laws. My children miss their grandparents, and okay, I’ll admit it, I miss them too.

With so many biases in play, having a conversation about bubbling can be difficult. And the decision becomes more complex when it involves more than one person. For some, even asking if everyone has been behaving safely might be too uncomfortable, but let’s imagine three approaches where some level of conversation takes place.

Option A: Talk about the decision. Here’s how I imagine the conversation between two people thinking about quarantining together:

Person A: Would you like to bubble with my family?

Person B: That would be really nice. Has everyone in your family been safe?

Person A: Yes. How about yours?

Person B. Very safe. This is going to be great.

Person A and Person B may have a very different definition of what “safe” means. Given the cognitive biases listed above, it would be fair to assume that others think they have been safe. But, even if you trust the other person, you might require more information before agreeing to form a bubble with them.

Option B: Have a dialogue about the decision. Establishing a verbal agreement seems to be an effective way to move beyond the social conversation of being polite. Rather than asking the other person to describe what safe means to them, ask them about their recent behavior. For example, "Have you been within six feet of anyone not wearing a mask who lives outside of our household in the last two weeks?”

Agreeing on appropriate behaviors clarifies what everyone involved believes to be true and can set clear expectations for before and during the bubble agreement period.

Option C: Have a dialogue about the decision and write down what you agree to. A discussion followed by something in writing allows each person to review the agreement at their own pace and reference it later. Agreements in writing also allow participants to hold each other accountable to something specific.

I wasn’t able to find an example of a bubble agreement online, so I’ve included the one I wrote below.

Photo by Marc Sendra Martorell on Unsplash

My Family’s COVID-19 Bubble Agreement

This agreement includes a series of promises we make with each other prior to and during our plan to break quarantine (a.k.a. quaranteaming). For the sake of this agreement, a pod is a household and the bubble is the newly formed group.

We understand:

  • Clear and transparent communication increases trust.

  • Every person we add to our social circle increases our risk of contracting the coronavirus.

  • People can spread the coronavirus before they know they are sick.

  • People with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of getting severely sick from the coronavirus.

  • Older adults seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from the coronavirus.

For two weeks prior we agree to:

  • Adhere to strict physical distancing practices including wearing a mask if within six feet of anyone outside of our pod.

  • Leave the home only for essential needs (e.g., grocery shopping) or outdoor activities where social distancing can be followed (e.g., hiking).

  • Not to socialize outside of our pod.

  • Wash our hands often.

  • Monitor our health and notify the group if we experience symptoms.

During our bubble period we agree to:

  • Maintain the same practices listed above.

  • Only socialize with individuals in this bubble.

  • Not to post photos of our bubble to social media.

* * * * *

This agreement won’t make us overcome all our collective cognitive biases, but the healthy dialogue and agreement has informed our decision making and helped improve clarity, transparency, and trust. If you find this agreement helpful, please feel free to modify it to work for you.

* The names of the biases described in the list are as follows:

1. Normalcy bias, 2. Availability bias, 3. Reactance 4. Confirmation bias, 5. Optimism bias, 6. Social norms bias.

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