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Want to understand and treat others better during Covid-19? Fix this cognitive bias

In a recent article published in Forbes, VSSL Director Dr. Joshua Liao highlights the issue of attribution bias -- a cognitive tendency to assign meaning to how others act (i.e., to ascribe reasons to why others do what they do).

Dr. Liao argues that if left unchecked, this bias can lead to negative, aggressive, or other harmful behaviors. As he notes:

"Humans are hard-wired to make sense of each other’s actions. Never has this inclination been more on display in America than now, as society grapples with tough choices about how to safely send children back to school amid Covid-19. Do policies like mandatory masking reflect no-brainer public health measures or indefensible assaults on civil liberties? Do efforts to fully reopen in-person schools represent uncompromising commitment to education or blatant disregard for teacher and student safety?
In prompting people to take positions on these types of issues, the pandemic has also triggered an innate tendency to make attributions about other people, in other words, to find and then judge the reasons they act the way they do. Follow rigorous masking policies, and some may label you a communist. Flout those policies, and others may deem you a “covidiot,” an idiot with regards to safe Covid-related behaviors.
The problem with these characterizations, and human attributions more generally, is that they may not reflect reality."

Dr. Liao notes how, in understanding attribution bias, we can apply three lessons to our lives during Covid-19. As he argues in closing:

"...as the pandemic continues, how we interact with each other also matters. Attribution bias can distort our views of the common ground that many of us share—the desire to make our own decisions while being considerate of others; the value we place on individual liberties and safe communities; the need to balance our dispositions with the surrounding situation. To bring clarity to these values, let’s fix attribution bias wherever and whenever we find it."

Read the full article here.


Visit the VSSL Covid-19 page for a list of articles led by Lab members regarding important pandemic-related topics.

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