Change is hard. But why? This question and its answer frame the early portion of our blogs, podcasts, and Book Notes on Learning about Leadership. The answer is both simple and complex at the same time. The simple answer is that our bodies, brains included, are designed to conserve energy. As a result, the brain has automatically processed past experiences with new ones and turns them into a  perfectly coherent story. With that story entrenched in our brains, we become confident that this same story will continue to apply to new circumstances with little change and minimal doubt. In most cases, this all works, but when it doesn’t, and the decision is expressed confidently, serious problems can result. To make a complex decision easier and the solution usually worse, our brains like to reduce the problem to an either-or answer rather than a nuanced or complicated one.

Now, let’s move to a slightly more complex explanation that relies on heuristics. Mental shortcuts, or heuristics, come from associating experiences over time. We begin to think that there is one answer to a lot of questions based on these common experiences. One such strategy is the availability heuristic. This refers to the brain’s tendency to make decisions based on what we already know, rather than learning something new. What we chose to use from our knowledge bank is based on how easy it is to retrieve, whether we have created a good explanation (coherent story) about why this knowledge is valid, and any emotional intensity associated with the knowledge. This is often the case with value-laden beliefs. Now we use this old information to explain something new that we don’t understand.

This is not an illogical process. It is perfectly rational. By using knowledge already in place, less effort is expended than in trying to learn something new. The problem occurs when that existing knowledge platform is wrong, incomplete, or does not fit the new context or circumstance. When new knowledge is pursued, the existing platform of knowledge and beliefs will try to bend the new to fit the old. The problem is compounded by confidence. When doubt disappears, the mental framework created from existing knowledge platforms easily biases decision making. The availability heuristic now results in something called the confirmation bias. To make matters even worse, the brain attempts to simplify the decision, again to preserve energy, and the easiest decision is an either-or, all or nothing decision. Some of the early blogs and Book Notes in this series are about this process.

As we write this series, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. With the exception of public health experts, nothing prepared most of us for this experience. As we projected forward, based on our own experiences, the process described above failed.

For example, we are all probably familiar with the seasonal flu and most of us get vaccinated every fall. Our current knowledge base did not include anything with a mortality rate like COVID-19. Not only did we, as the American public, more or less ignore the warning signs, so did much of our leadership. The new information was outside of our current knowledge platform. We could have related it to the 1918 pandemic, but few of us were familiar with the 1918 pandemic. It was not available knowledge. We would have had to learn something new.

Relying on the similarity to the seasonal flu was rational based on what we knew. Projecting that forward to a new flu that turned out to be surprisingly contagious with a two week gestation period and a higher mortality rate, developed into a very expensive mistake. We looked forward with a bias in our viewpoint formed from the past.

Later blogs in this series are about how to correct the irrational application that often results from perfectly rational processes. The gradual acceptance of the COVID-19 danger illustrates a number of cures for heuristics when they result in bias. These cures are complicated, required mental effort, and decision-makers and the media have to implement very specific strategies to win us over. Change is hard! Let’s stop and look at how the availability heuristic and the confirmation bias played out, at least for us, with COVID-19.

First, in most cases, our available knowledge included no one who had died from the virus, no one who had the virus, and most of us lived in states with relatively few cases. Our easily available knowledge, based on our experiences, did not include anyone with the virus nor anyone in the state with the virus. We had to be convinced. Problem number one is that cognitive reasoning usually does not work. In point of fact, in most states without existing cases of Covid-19, it did not work at all until they had cases. Once the virus took hold in the coastal states we had visuals of two kinds. We had graphs showing how the virus spread exponentially and would continue to spread. We also had graphs showing the spread of the virus into more states and eventually it was in every single state. Visual reasoning proved more powerful than cognitive reasoning.

Another, even more powerful, persuasive approach began at roughly the same time – stories about individuals, real people. We have difficulty moving from the general to the specific, even when the general is visual data. We have much less trouble moving from the specific to the general. We can move from an emotional story about someone struggling with the virus to a generalization better than the reverse and these stories began to appear in the media. In the last few minutes, we’ve learned that Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, has been taken into intensive care. As famous people, like athletes and entertainers, succumb to the virus, we all become more convinced that it might be important to begin to use social distancing. When someone we know tests positive, or worse, dies, that is instantly persuasive but also late.

Second, as individuals, habits make things easier. At an organizational level, habits are called processes. Fortunately the public health community had processes for modeling the virus and swung into gear with the persuasion beginning almost immediately. Unfortunately, processes for actually dealing with the virus were not in place and we had to improvise along the way, as the data changed. We had to create processes, both for treating the virus and for communicating, on the fly and that is very difficult and mistakes were and will be made.

Third, if people we knew or respected did not agree with the persuasive messages, and we were under their social influence, we resisted the warning messages. As people we knew and/or respected began to change their minds about the dangers of the virus, we did too. People we know and are willing to listen to are usually peers, family members, or friends. As this group began to change, so did we.  This is called social transmission or social influences.

But why, even with the use of all these persuasive tools, was social distancing so difficult to choose as a remedy? The step was too big. One last element of persuasion is the size of the step required. When we began, we were talking about making a decision easy. A small step is easier than a big step. There was no small step available. Physical, social contact had to stop. By the time this decision has run its course, 10 M people will likely be unemployed. Entertainment, travel, and personal service industries will be shuttered. Poor people who are barely recovering from the recession will be hit again. The decision was difficult not only because our mental framework was biased, it was difficult because there was no small step. 

All of these corrective behaviors kicked in; the data was visually presented, we had corroborating and emotional stories eventually with people we knew, liked, or respected, our knowledge bank began to include cases near us with even more and closer stories, and finally people we respect began to advocate for different behaviors. As we went through these steps, the attitude in the country changed and the big step was taken.