The other day, I was in conversation with someone whose child had gotten mildly sick. Not super-sick, just, you know, normal kid stuff — maybe a mild fever for a night, mild cough for a couple days, runny nose, low energy, sneezing. Mostly it was just a runny nose, sneezing and feeling “blah”.
So I said, “Those are COVID symptoms; you have to get them tested and isolate yourselves.”
Now, would YOU get a child tested in this situation? Put them through all that discomfort? Would you isolate yourselves, cancel your plans, book an appointment, go to the testing centre, and disrupt your whole life, just because of what sure looks like nothing but a mild cold? I mean, it’s not like they’re REALLY sick or anything. SURELY they don’t have COVID! I mean, come on! Be reasonable! Right?
Others involved were like, “Nah, doesn’t sound like COVID to me. Don’t worry about it.”
As a Psychologist, I was like, hmmmm….this is bad reasoning. This is the “Representativeness Heuristic,” doing its nefarious work. The Representativeness Heuristic is something every student of Psychology learns, when they learn about cognitive biases and errors in reasoning. But, it sounds pretty BOOOOOORING, right? It sounds like egghead nerd talk. It even has too many syllables to wrap your head around quickly. And what IS a heuristic anyway? Textbook-speak, blahblahblah. Whatever….
But the thing is, we ARE bad reasoners, a lot of the time, and a few decades of careful research has uncovered many of the key biases and errors we tend to make in our reasoning. We’re blind to them most of the time. We don’t SEE ourselves reasoning in shitty ways, so we imagine that we are pretty good at making sense of reality. But, too much of the time, we’re not.
Instead of thinking carefully about things, we take cognitive shortcuts. We use mental “rules of thumb”, and we do so because, come on maaaan, if you thought carefully about EVERYTHING, life would suck. Life is way too complicated; there’s too much uncertainty in the world; and who has the time for that anyway? Just “use common sense” and get on with things.
Well, unfortunately, sometimes this could lead you to murdering somebody (unintentionally, in this case). It’s also a HUGE contributor to addiction (and almost everyone you know, including you probably, is addicted to things). It even can lead to suicide. And much of this could be avoided if people just understood, like really understood, the boring-sounding Representativeness Heuristic.
(In fact, the reason that so many people ignore the Representativeness Heuristic is because it has such an obscure-sounding name. Surely something that boring and obscure sounding can’t be important! Right? ……. Well, that’s actually you using the Representativeness Heuristic for shitty reasoning. Sorry, but it’s true.)
So, back to the sick child. Ask yourself, what does COVID “look like”, to you? What mental image comes to your mind when you think of someone with this potentially lethal disease? Do you imagine someone super-sick, fighting for every breath, maybe even on a ventilator? Surely, you’ve heard about that kind of stuff, right? Those are the scary COVID stories that people talk about in the media to try to ram into our heads that we are all fighting a global pandemic, and it should be taken seriously.
But unfortunately, if THAT is your mental image of “someone with COVID”, then yeah, a kid with a mild cough for a couple of days, some sneezing, maybe a one-night fever, is NOT going to “seem like” a COVID case. It’s going to “seem like” no big deal.
The Representativeness Heuristic leads people to make decisions based on the superficial features of something. Like, does it seem like “the thing” to you? If it does, if there’s a match of these superficial features, then DING! You conclude it’s “the thing”. It it doesn’t match your mental image, then BZZZZZT, nope, it’s not “the thing”.
But there are other ways to reason. Like, we could use logic and statistics. Let’s consider a few simple stats. Approximately 1/2 of kids with COVID do not have high fevers. Approximately 1/2 of kids with COVID do not have coughs. And some UNKNOWN but not small proportion of kids with COVID have no symptoms at all, or very mild ones, like maybe just a wee bout of a cold or something. (The reason this proportion is unknown is because an unknown number of these kids never end up getting tested, so there’s literally no way to even guess with any confidence how many of them are out there. But, enough of them DO pass COVID on that we know kids can be “asymptomatic carriers”.)
Okay, that’s enough stats. And you can see, right away, that there is NO WAY to conclude that a child with mild symptoms doesn’t have COVID. In fact, lots and lots and lots of COVID cases have only mild symptoms. Especially kids. So, “common sense” reasoning, like “doesn’t look like COVID to me”, is just plain bad reasoning. In fact, it’s barely reasoning at all. It’s just guessing, and convincing yourself that your guess is right, because it FEELS BETTER that way.
Unfortunately, the consequences of bad reasoning like this, is that kids become one of the key vectors of COVID into families and communities. Which leads some people to get very, very sick, even die.
And the ones who don’t die? Well, a very large proportion of people who’ve survived COVID still have impairments months after they “recovered”. Mental fog, not being able to concentrate, fatigue, memory problems, respiratory problems, heart problems, immune problems. Nobody knows what the long-term effects of COVID infection are going to be. We won’t know for years, even decades. So, ignoring mild symptoms is literally gambling with people’s lives.