Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 12, 2024

A list of a few cognitive biases that you may have experienced this year

By JESSICA KASAMOTO | December 14, 2020



Columnist Jessica Kasamoto argues that “rosy retrospection,“ the tendency to view the past in a positive light, is one cognitive bias that has been at play this year.

As the year wraps up, I think most of us would agree that 2020 was a year of many things: quarantine, masks, social injustice, wildfires, political polarity, cynicism, sadness. It is also the year that you can probably name more than two sitting governors because the media actually cares about them now.

But 2020 was also a year filled to the brim with cognitive bias, which are systematic errors in thinking and judgment that can affect one’s decision making and general outlook.

What? What does that even mean, Jessica? I go to Hopkins and have a 5.8 grade point average and do 50 hours of research a week. Don’t tell me that my thinking is filled with errors!

Slow down, cowboy; nobody is calling you dumb. We’re all guilty. Honestly, every year is probably filled to the brim with cognitive bias. But with the rodeo that has been 2020, I believe that these biases have been much more prominent and, in most cases, more detrimental. Let’s go through a few just so we’re aware, shall we?

Hindsight bias — perceiving past events more predictable than they really were

Hindsight is 2020. It’s pretty easy for us to be critical of decisions made and expectations we had in April, May, June and so on. But don’t kid yourselves. We haven’t experienced a pandemic of this scale here in the U.S. in 100 years, so none of us really knew what to expect. Telling ourselves that we were “clowns” for thinking or believing one thing or another back when we were all freaking out in April just isn’t a fair assessment.

Gambler’s fallacy — when we falsely believe that a certain event is more or less likely given previous events or outcomes

Say you flip a fair coin 100 times, and every time you get heads. What is the probability that you get heads for your 101st flip? It’s 50%. We can all agree that the previous 100 outcomes have no effect on your 101st outcome. Coins don’t have memory — it’s all just randomness! The same logic goes for any other random event in your life: the odds of getting into an accident every time you step in a car, winning the lottery every time you buy a ticket or contracting a disease in a pandemic. Some things which may have seen “risky” or “scary” at first become marginally less so the second, third time we do it. We find security in familiarity. That doesn’t mitigate the risk, though. Engaging in an activity and not getting COVID-19 says nothing about your risk engaging the second time or the third. It’s something to keep in mind when you perform your own personal-risk assessment in coming months. 

Rosy retrospection and declinism — the tendency to view the past as positive and the future more negatively

Guys, when you really think about it, how happy were you in 2019? Or 2018? Or 2017? Yes, I think a lot of people were probably happier in 2019 than they were in 2020, but that doesn’t mean that normal life was all rosy-sunshine-unicorns-rainbows. We hated dragging our butts out of bed to walk to our 100 person lectures in Bloomberg at 9 a.m. We miss it and think of it fondly now, and a lot of us probably are telling ourselves that we’ll never complain about those things again. I’m skeptical. I think we’re always going to be more inclined to dwell on our present woes. We’ll likely have a newfound appreciation for many things once we’re out of quarantine, but I think we’ll still have plenty of complaints just because that’s simply the way we are.

Availability heuristic — making judgments on the likelihood of events based on how easily an example comes to mind

I could take this one several different ways in the context of this year. Just because nobody you know has COVID-19 doesn’t mean you are not going to get it. Just because nobody you know has died from COVID-19 doesn’t make it any less dangerous. Just because you haven’t seen instances of social injustice and racism (although you probably have and just didn’t realize it) doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.

This year has caused us all to be gloomy. Jaded. Cynical. Extremely pessimistic about many things going forward. We think that we’ll keep getting more bad news, keep being disappointed, keep living like this because that’s what life has been like for the past nine months. The bad things are most easily available when we search our memory, so we’re inclined to believe that these “worst-case scenarios” are always going to be the most probable for months to come. That’s just false and naïve if you ask me. In the context of this pandemic, there’s definitely a happy medium between positive and negative. It’s a balance between knowing that things have been hard, and it’s likely that they’ll keep being hard, but also knowing that things being better is always somewhere on the horizon, even if we don’t know exactly when that will be yet. I would suggest you find that happy medium realm of thinking. It’s the healthiest way of thinking at this point.

But, as you may already know, I do like being positive, so let’s end this on a high note. Christmas may look a little different this year, but there’s good news! Dr. Anthony Fauci recently announced that Santa Claus was found to be immune to COVID-19, a fact which will likely relieve all of your deep-seated worries and rebuild all that holiday spirit that was lost during this quarantine finals season.

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