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Surviving the Information Epidemic

Needless to say, Covid-19 has been consuming a large proportion of the news lately. Like that annoying friend that keeps photo-bombing your otherwise perfect pictures, the virus is inconsiderately pushing itself front and center, disrupting everyone’s plans, from school children to ministers, in its attempt to go…well, viral.

The reaction has been interesting to observe for those of us working at the crossroads of communications and behavioral insights. Winning the communications war in a time of crisis is quite a balancing act; on the one hand, authorities, media and employers want to provide as much information as possible, as transparency breeds trust and allows concerned parties to make the best decisions. On the other hand, too much information, especially when it comes in quick succession from multiple sources, can overwhelm individuals leading to confusion, distrust and panic.

There is no winning formula to this balancing act, as each situation is unique, its context and audience even more so. So while others are busy tweaking the formula, we can learn a lot about how communication affects us by exploring some of the reactions we have seen so far, and in the process, learn a little more about how we react to the communication of risk. There are many cognitive biases that shape our reaction to communicated risk. We will look into some relevant ones here.

#1The Ostrich effect

Ah, the Ostrich effect, best characterized by someone who refuses to acknowledge or avoid negative or risky information. So instead of taking their temperature when they are starting to feel a little sick, or getting that persistent cough checked out, they dismiss it. “I’m sure it’s nothing, no need to visit a doctor!”

We sometimes stick our head in the proverbial sands when we are invested in a specific outcome and want to avoid the unpleasant feeling that comes with disappointment or fear. We selectively choose the information we can deal with, and the rest, well…what rest? Covid who, now?

#2Availability Bias

Availability bias works in the opposite direction of the Ostrich effect. Instead of ignoring and avoiding information, it is over-represented in our minds. If an event is easy to recall, or features heavily in our surroundings, we overestimate the risk of its occurrence. Just picture those individuals who recoil in fear when you cough, and then relax when they realize you are just choking on your food. Phew, it’s not Covid-19, carry on!

Availability bias makes us over-represent the risk of more extreme events, while interestingly, underestimating those that are more common, like catching the common cold, or developing hypertension (perhaps from eating too many instant noodles…just sayin’).

#3Affinity Bias

The city of Wuhan, China is now infamously recognized as the epicenter of the Covid-19 crisis. Unfortunately, this has meant that discrimination and xenophobia has been misdirected towards Chinese people around the globe, even though we know that viruses’ don’t discriminate (perhaps we could learn a thing or two about inclusion from Mr. Covid-19).

Affinity bias is the tendency for individuals to have more positive associations with others from groups that resemble them or who share similar traits. We feel safer with people that we consider to be like “us”.  Though affinity bias does not always mean that outsiders are excluded, it can mean that we unconsciously trust those who make up the “us” rather than those who make up the “them”. This discourse, if carried with ill intent will also allow “them” to be vilified. Take a quick note of how Chinese nationals (or anyone who may resemble them) have been treated around the globe recently. Discrimination based on symptoms and contact is far more reasonable than nationality.

#4Scarcity Bias

When governments began raising the level of seriousness regarding the spread of the disease, it cued panic buying. Orange was just a shade away from red, and though most of us didn’t know how or if that would change anything for our day to day life, we knew there was one thing we could not live without…toilet paper! Incidents of price gouging, long cues and hoarding for goods like toilet paper, masks and instant noodles occurred because the public perceived scarcity in two different ways. First people perceived that the goods themselves might run out, which created the pressing feeling that they needed to stock up. Second, they also perceived that the opportunity to go and get the essentials may also run out if situation suddenly changed and people are asked to stay home. Scarcity bias inflates the value of something that is perceived to be less available, which means that once you have it, it is worth more to you.

#5Information Overload

In the quest to keep everyone up to speed with the latest, the information flow can be a bit too fast and furious, and this can have several consequences at different stages of the crisis. At the beginning of a crisis, information flows that come from multiple sources at a frequent pace can overwhelm individuals and contribute to a sense of unwarranted urgency and panic. The vast amount of exchange also allows for unscrupulous folks to spread misinformation with varying degrees of harm. These could be milder, like your auntie’s Whatsapp for herbal remedies to cure the virus (with sample size n = 1, you), to more harmful ones that attempt to generate fear or mistrust. Finally, accompanying the heavy flow of information is the risk of desensitization over time. If we are exposed to a deluge of information, we will be very attentive at the beginning, but as time wears on, news regarding the virus will slowly fade into the background noise of our lives as updates become the new normal. While this may be beneficial at some levels, it may also mean that we dismiss important information the longer the crisis lasts, or that we discontinue positive behaviors (like frequent hand-washing) because they slip out of the foreground of our attention.


Yes, plenty. Here are a few other things you can consider doing to mitigate these bias:

·       Take your info from official and reliable sources. Your auntie’s Whatsapp messages do not count.

·       Share information from reliable sources. If you don’t know the source of information, don’t spread it, we have enough viral content already.

·       Limit yourself to checking these sources once or twice a day. You don’t need notifications every time someone sneezes in the MRT.

·       When new information is available, focus on how this affects you and your loved ones before you consider taking any action.

·       If you are worried, do your research. It’s helpful (and humbling) to understand how much thought, planning, and effort has gone into managing this crisis, and ensuring our public safety. So when you see any of our healthcare workers, tip your hat and thank them for standing on the front line, along with all the others who are supporting their efforts.

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