• Brock Williamson, CFP®

The CDC, COVID & Behavioral Biases



The director of the CDC recently said that this fall may be the worst one we’ve ever had – as COVID and the traditional flu season come together. This is a bold prediction, and on the surface seems reasonable. But I believe this prediction, like most predictions, may be influenced by bias.


In this post I describe what biases I am referring to and make a bold prediction myself – that this autumn will be better than average. There is a lot of new stuff at play. It will be very interesting to see how it all develops and adaptations we make along the way.


Nudge – A Positive Bias


Perhaps the director of the CDC is aware of the influence of behavioral biases. Perhaps he understands that people can be influenced to act certain ways based on how information is provided. An alarming statement such as “worst fall we’ve ever had” may effectively scare people into being more careful this fall.


Saying that something bad is going to happen causes a natural reaction within us. We don’t like bad things, so we are likely to respond by looking for ways to protect ourselves from the bad. Is the CDC using behavioral biases to influence people to act more cautiously? In this case, the population may be more disciplined in social distancing, washing hands etc…


Imagine if he had said the complete opposite. That he expects this autumn to be one of the safest that mankind has ever experienced. Such a statement may result in people to dropping their guard and not being as deliberate in their choices.


Anchoring – A Negative Bias


Another bias at play, which is likely if the director of CDC is unaware of the roles of behavioral biases, is that of anchoring. Anchoring is when our belief/opinion is based on some prior outcome or fact. It assumes things are not different from the past and that we do not adapt to changing circumstances.


We have many years of battling influenza from fall to spring. The sample size is large and data is probably quite compelling. We know how many people, on average, get influenza each year. We know how many die, on average. This makes the unconscious bias of anchoring so powerful in influencing future expectations.


But 2020 is unlike any other year in that sample. Our generation has never experienced a season of influenza during a pandemic. The natural thinking is that COVID isn’t under control, kids are about to go back to school and here comes flu season…a perfect storm. But I’m not so sure.


A Bold Prediction: A Better Flu Season Than Average


COVID is still a wild card. We still don’t know exactly how it spreads, there appear to be various strains and it affects people so differently. Some studies have found that some infected to not appear to spread the virus, but that there are cases of “super-spreaders”.


While COVID is anyone’s guess, we have learned a bit over the last few months. Florida and Arizona had significant spikes in July and have broken the curve big time since. Meaning, we know, to some extent, how to get it to a manageable level. Schools will re-open, may see spikes, and will adopt safer procedures or move to distance learning.


I believe this will be a better flu season because of all the changes to personal health we are taking that will shield us much more from influenza than in the past. Our personal health habits are much cleaner and safer today than at this time last year:

  • We wash hands frequently, hand sanitizer is everywhere

  • We stay home when sick; it’s no longer a badge of honor to go to work/school when sick

  • Much of the population will be wearing masks in closed spaces

  • Much of the population distances themselves from others when they can (at least attempts to)

  • Many people are working from home and workspaces are spread out

  • At risk individuals will choose to stay in whenever possible

  • Many students are attending school online, most of those going back are at 50% capacity and social distanced from others

I could go on, but those are some major points. We have changed our health habits in response to the pandemic. I believe these habits and more deliberate social interactions will greatly reduce the spread of influenza compared to prior years (assuming similar flu bug). And if these same habits also help break the COVID curve, we could end up having one of the healthiest falls we have ever experienced.


©2020 The Behavioral Finance Network. Used with permission.

© 2020 Promontory Financial Planning. The material provided is for general information, and should not be considered a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security.

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