"Shouldn't we be wearing face masks too?" I was surprised when my girlfriend sent me this message mid-March, when COVID-19 was still an exotic disease in faraway Wuhan. "Stop the lockdown. The flagging economy will cause far more human suffering than the deaths." I was shocked to read this newspaper article by an English doctor mid-April, as people in our own country at that time were falling victim to COVID-19 every single day. "Will we have to go into lockdown again if the infection level starts rising again?" People around me are getting angry when I raise this question, now that we all feel how nice it is to see friends and family again, even if there are still some restrictions.
How can our thinking change that much in such a short time? In March, we were already fully aware that the world has become a global village. And by April, we could have foreseen how dramatic the long-term consequences of a lockdown would be for many individuals and families. And in May, we already knew that the infection level was not to be taken lightly.
WYSIATH and the supremacy of the here and now
Our brain suffers from the availability bias or '"What You See Is All There Is" (see "Thinking, Fast & Slow", Kahneman). We only take into account those ideas or images that are activated in our brain. Our brain uses them to build a story that makes sense. Coherence in this is far more important than completeness. Our brain thus simply dismisses information that does not fit into the story.
In March, ideas such as "something exotic” and “far away and of no concern to us" were activated. The few people who dared to suggest that the world is a global village, were dismissed as prophets of doom. In April, we saw images of overcrowded hospital corridors and nurses in astronaut suits. Whoever dared to refer to the long-term economic consequences at such a time was told off: "What if it were your father?" And in May, ideas of relaxing the social distancing rules and returning to normal were being triggered. If you then dared to suggest that easing the lockdown may only be temporary, you were made fun of for being a pessimist.
And that is not all. Not only does our brain dismiss inappropriate information, it is also subject to the supremacy of the here and now. Images of things happening here (our hospitals versus those in far-off Wuhan) and things happening now (people dying today versus people suffering in the future) tend to have a much bigger impact when our brain is building a coherent story and is making decisions and judgments based on that story.
Okay, so we are trying to get a grip on what is happening around us based on the ideas and images that are activated in our brain. And of all the available information, the information about the here and now clearly prevails. That is just how the human brain works. But this is not without risks. Because of this, we pay far too little attention to the longer-term consequences and to what happens outside of our surroundings.
What can we do about this in a business context?
Disrupting the availability bias and the supremacy of the here and now. We know that our brain will not do this by itself. But we can implement systems that will get overlooked views and angles out into the open again. Here are two examples:
- Covey’s Matrix (urgent/important). By looking at tasks from an urgent/important perspective, as a manager you can gain insight into the so-called urgent things that your team is spending a lot of time on but that are actually not so important for organizational survival. And likewise, you get to uncover the things that your team has been putting on hold because they are not urgent, while those are exactly the things that can help your organization reinventing itself.
- The Value Compass for decision-making. By approaching a proposed solution from varying values, you can make visible less obvious consequences and opinions. Does the proposed solution contribute to the bigger goal of your organization? Does the solution take into account all of your team members’ values? Imagine that, as an organization, you are considering doing away with open plan offices in favor of private offices. Thinking about your mission and about how highly your employees value togetherness, stimulation, and self-determination, may provide valuable additional insights.
From now on, when someone asks me a question again that either surprises or scares me or makes me angry, I will think about it a little longer. Is it an incentive to train my fallible mind? And if the virus should resurge again, then let us all make an effort to take a broader view and to look beyond the here and now.
- Dr Kathleen Vangronsvelt, senior researcher Enabling Human Impact
Kahneman, D. (2011). Ons feilbare denken. Amsterdam: Business Contact.
Covey, S.R. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York. Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Vangronsvelt, K. (2019). Enacting personal values in the workplace: exploring the social liability of being authentic at work. PhD Thesis, KU Leuven.
Get in touch
Do you want to contact the author Kathleen Van Gronsvelt? Or do you have a question? Let her know via Kathleen.Vangronsvelt@ams.ac.be.