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.
Hi Dr. Dolderman,
Thank you for this post! Also your YouTube videos are extremely important to my personal wellness. This COVID-19 example will help me remember I have different reasonings taking over during panic attacks and depressive episodes and recover faster.
-same previous student from a few months ago
Thanks Anonymous! (BTW, “Dan” is totally fine.) 🙂 I appreciate your message, and that this post reached you in a personal way. That honestly means so much to me, to hear something like that and know, wooooow, there are real people out there who find some of this meaningful! 🙂 Also, the YouTube videos! Wow! I’m planning to release an update on that little ‘toxic shame experiment’ soon; I just had my laptop that I use for recording, bite the dust, and need to get it fixed, or at least pull the files off it through some tech-magic-person. But hopefully in a couple of weeks?
Thanks for sharing what you did about the importance of being able to access “different reasonings” when panic attacks and depressive episodes hit. I definitely struggle with depressive episodes, and although not panic attacks per se, something similar — anxiety/aversion spikes, or dissociative moments where I basically ‘gap out’ and it’s like I don’t exist for a while. When they’re bad, they’re so powerful it feels like I am powerless and there’s no way I’ll ever overcome them. But, you nailed it — these experiences pretty much always have SOME components of “bad reasoning” fuelling them, and uncovering that, making it explicit for yourself, and challenging it, really does help. Maybe not in the peak-moment (although maybe even then too), but certainly in the recovery period, as you note.
The other part that I’m personally experimenting with right now is what you might call embodied, or sub-representational strategies. I’m finding that when HUGE surges of emotions, or dissociative ‘gap-outs’ happen, one of the very most important things I can do is to physiologically ground myself. I don’t know if you’ve had any experience with this, but I’d encourage you to look into it. For example (not necessarily a personal example….just sayin’), let’s say someone struggles with self-harm as an “outlet” for excessive stress or anger or self-hatred or something like that. One thing that really makes a difference for many people is, if you can stop yourself from whatever the self-harm behaviour would be, for even like 10 seconds, and instead, jump in the shower and turn it on cold. Or stick your hands in the freezer and grab cold stuff. Or even just splash cold water on your face. It’s amazing how rapidly that can “interrupt” the otherwise-seemingly-automatic behaviour pattern of self-harm. It’s like it both buys you some time in order for your higher-level decision-making and rationality centers to have a chance to kick in (thereby enabling you to do that thought-challenging mentioned above), AND it kind of shocks the system out of its normal loops, and brings you back into the body. That can often make a big difference.
With panic attacks or anxiety spikes, or dissociative episodes, similar strategies can sometimes help. For example, what I call sensory grounding. Like, just when the ‘freak out’ starts rising in you, force yourself to pause, even for a few seconds, and NAME 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you feel, and if possible, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you taste. By the time you’ve done that, it’s like the other strategy — you’ve gotten your higher-cognitive, prefrontal cortex areas activated, and you’ve centered yourself a bit more in your body. I have also found this to be helpful at times.
There are a ton of possibilities. What seems to be key is to interrupt the thought-loops that otherwise tend to escalate and take whatever reaction you’re having and amplify it. Slowing down that process even a little, can often be the difference between ‘totally losing it’, and being able to get a handle on yourself.
There’s also the “armpit hug”. Peter Levine recommends this for emotional-overwhelm, like trauma-triggered states. It’s super easy — just stick one hand in the opposite armpit, and then the other hand grabs its opposite shoulder. And you just hang on. Feeling “the container” of the body, and noting that it does have boundaries, can be very grounding when one feels like they’re flying off the handle.
If you don’t mind sharing, do you have any techniques or strategies that have worked for you or that you’re starting to practice?
Will you be updating your YouTube shame series? You said the experiment was going to be for one week… that was August. It’s now December and we’re collectively on the edges of our seats
Hi Anonymous! Yes, the experiment was for one week! Posting the next video has proven to take longer than that… 🙁 But yes, I will be doing this when I can, and updating it….thanks for asking, and I’m sorry for the wait! 🙂