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Why Prior Experience Can Blind People To Covid-19’s Thanksgiving Risks

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Dr. Joshua Liao discusses how humans are primed to distort current perspective based on past events: an indoor gathering in winter is not the same as an outdoor gathering in summer, but our brains may incline us to think otherwise.


Covid-19 is surging again in the U.S. But as Americans brace for the challenges ahead, some may find a cause for hope: that we can use what we’ve already learned about the coronavirus to reduce suffering this time around.

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In some ways, this hope is founded. Since the pandemic began, we’ve learned a great deal about how the virus spreads, and how to blunt it via individual actions and public policy. Our health care professionals are better equipped to protect themselves while identifying and treating Covid-19 patients. Albeit in fits and starts, we’ve come a long way in terms of testing. Vaccines are on the horizon.

But we cannot assume that we can apply these experiences to our pandemic response. Drawing too much on prior experience – helpful as it is – can create strong expectations that close us off to new information that blind us to pandemic risks this winter.

The reason is that when it comes to human perception, what you see is rarely what you get. Instead, people often filter experiences through frames of reference based on their motivations, prior experiences, and expectations. In cognitive psychology, this phenomenon is called perceptual sets: the tendency for motivations and prior experience to affect how people perceive certain objects or events over others. Though they help people process large amounts of information and make sense of the world, perceptual sets can also distort our perspectives and lead us astray.

Thanksgiving offers a timely example. Many of us have strong and understandable motivations to gather with loved ones over Thanksgiving. That desire may be reinforced by our prior experiences with Covid-19 over the summer, when gatherings – particularly those involving caution (e.g., small groups, distancing) – did not trigger major surges.

These motivations and experiences can then prime us with expectations that gathering with others over the holidays is largely safe. The underlying thinking is intuitive: if gathering with others was safe before, it can be safe now; if restrictions worked in the past, we can expect them to work again. But these filters can blind us to new information that challenge those assumptions and force us to rethink our perceptions.

For instance, longer days and extended outdoor time likely contributed to lower viral transmission in the summer, dynamics that no longer exist in many areas amid fall and winter. Guidance about what constitutes “close contact” with others continues to evolve. Certain activities, such as smaller group gatherings within “pandemic bubbles” of contacts, are perhaps not as safe as previously thought. Though welcome, the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines does not mean the immediate end of masking or distancing.

The reason to worry about faulty perceptual sets amid Covid-19 is that they are ubiquitous in life. Motivated to buy a car, we suddenly notice all of the vehicles on the road of the same make or model – what a coincidence that there are so many! – where we didn’t previously. Our prior experience as rabid sports fans can influence our perceptions of sporting events: when referees penalize our team, those rarely seem like good calls, right? What we expect often colors what we see.

Fortunately, perceptual sets can also be influenced, particularly in ambiguous circumstances. For instance, in a classic experiment, scientists showed participants an intentionally ambiguous image – a “13” that could be perceived as either a “B” or “13”. People were more likely to judge the image as a “B” when shown between two other letters (A and C) but as a “13” when shown between two other numbers (12 and 14).

In another study, students were given descriptions of a guest speaker before his arrival. The descriptions were identical with one exception: half of the students were told the speaker had a cold personality, the other half that he had a warm one. After the lecture, students given the warm description rated the speaker as being more considerate, informed, sociable, and kind.

As Covid-19 surges toward 170,000 new daily cases and 1,500 deaths, these insights highlight how we must work to recognize and correct faulty perceptual sets about Covid-19 risks. The pandemic remains too dynamic, and marked by too much uncertainty, to simply allow our motivations and prior experience to drive future actions.

Instead, all of us must counteract faulty perceptions by seeking out, paying attention to, and sharing new information about Covid-19. This Thanksgiving, that means recognizing and adjusting our plans for that fact that while traveling to loved ones may have been safe previously, that doesn’t mean it’s safe now.

To be clear, we can still apply prior insight to face current Covid-19 surges – for instance, that distancing and masking help blunt viral spread. Correcting faulty perceptual sets is also not a panacea. Perceptions are shaped by other factors like emotion, culture, and attitudes. Individuals must address other cognitive tendencies beyond perceptual sets – an even taller task given widespread Covid-related fatigue and apathy.

Nonetheless, our prior experience can prompt perceptions about Covid-19 that unintentionally lead us astray toward unsafe behaviors. However understandable that tendency, the stakes are too high to let it happen. We must recognize and reshape our perceptions to better assess Covid-19 this Thanksgiving and beyond.

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