Sunél’s Blog | Corona and the human mind

Sunél Veldtman, | 20 March 2020

The COVID-19 virus fall-out is a great example of the flaws in human thinking.

For a complex problem – like, what is the most appropriate response by a country’s government to the spread of a deadly virus – you need complex thinking. However, most people rarely apply the rational, thinking part of their brains. Most human thinking is done automatically and quickly. We reduce the complex problem into a simple problem that we can easily solve without spending excess energy.

Conversations around the virus are obvious examples of such reductionist thinking: people jump to easy conclusions based on a few pieces of dodgy data. How many of us have heard, ‘It’s just like the flu’. No, it’s not.  For one, a significant portion of the sick will need hospitalisation, unlike the flu. Or how about, ‘Eventually all of us will get it, so why don’t we just get it over’. No, we can’t because the health system cannot deal with all of us getting sick at the same time, particularly when most hospitalisations will require high care.  Then there are those who have linked their opinion to the opinion of an ‘expert’, i.e. ‘My brother’s mother-in-law is a doctor in …’.

When we operate from a position of fear, we are less likely to have the capacity to apply complex thinking. Our fear dictates that we act. Now! Complex thinking, on the other hand, requires slowing down and carefully sifting through lots of relevant data. Slow thinking is rare. Few people are inclined to go through the effort. And even if we think we’re applying our minds, there is still a good chance that our thinking is not complete, or accurate or even rational.  Some of the worlds’ greatest minds are the most forthcoming about the difficulty of deep thinking.

Slow thinking may appear indecisive and weak. People love fast thinking. It feels secure because we feel like we have an immediate solution for the now. It explains why Trump is in power. But it’s dangerous.

Slow thinking is vital in dealing with COVID-19.

In your next corona conversation, listen up! You’ll spot the fast thinkers quickly. Slow thinking is a rare thing and a lot harder to hear.