In this post I wish to briefly explore a possible research direction that scholars might want to explore in studying the current coronavirus pandemic. Though pandemic studies is not a focus of mine the ideas I’ll sketch relate to some analytical themes I explored in my doctoral research. In this post I briefly consider the key idea of “cognitive inertia”, its potential relevance to current pandemic, and some related lines of inquiry.
In my research I briefly explored the concept of ‘cognitive inertia’ when doing a literature review for my PhD as the concept informed some studies looking at participatory scenario planning interventions, their potential roles and their effectiveness. The main idea is that cognitive inertia is a problem requiring periodic interventions (e.g. a scenario exercise) and process facilitators can provide associated types of consultancy services.
But what is ‘cognitive inertia’? A scholar who has studied pandemics, Tom Dicke, provides one perspective (others noted below). Dicke defines it as “the tendency of existing beliefs or habits of thought to blind people to changed realities”. In this conceptualisation cognitive change lags changes to reality, in part, due to peoples’ prevailing beliefs.
In the context of the 1918-19 flu pandemic, Dicke argues that cognitive inertia caused people “to see the flu as the nuisance it had always been rather than the killer it had become.” He further elaborates his analysis as follows:
People had ample warning that they stood in the path of a pandemic but failed to recognize the danger for weeks. Part of the reason for this failure goes back to the brief and sometimes contradictory nature of the reporting but more important was the common understanding of the flu as an unpleasant nuisance which, it seems, temporarily blinded Americans to the local implications of the numerous and increasingly worrisome news reports of the flu’s spread.”
So, this is one way of considering the notion of cognitive inertia with a focus on how it may blind people to actual dangers (in a pandemic). This is an important aspect to consider and reflect upon. For instance, when people criticise others for thinking COVID-19 is “just the flu” in part they’re perhaps suggesting that pre-existing beliefs about respiratory viruses and their dangers inadequately reflect a novel threat and consequently blind them to a new reality. Similarly, I’ve seen persuasive arguments that beliefs about COVID-19 inadequately reflect the dramatic events seen in northern Italy and in parts of United States.
There appear to be additional perspectives on cognitive inertia that may also be relevant to the pandemic. Recent comments made Jay Bhattacharya (a professor at Stanford University) at an event held in Massachusetts, in the United States, to discuss alternative COVID-19 policies may point to the relevance of such perspectives:
I think it’s very hard once you’ve formed an impression about a complicated topic to shift from that. An impression was formed in February and March and it’s been very difficult for new evidence to change [that impression]. I think that’s partly human nature. I think that explains a lot […]. I think it’s hard to change your opinion based on new data […] [but] we need keep our mind open to the data and what it’s actually telling us and to some extent let our priors go and that’s just hard.”
Similarly, Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London articulated the following reflections and observations:
I’m conscious in myself that there’s a tendency to become wedded to a position you’ve taken and find it difficult to revise views in terms of new evidence coming forward.”
These quotes contain a number of assertions and observations. The basic proposition of interest here is that we can form and internalise initial mental representations (e.g. an initial ‘impression’) that aren’t routinely updated in relation to evolving evidence.
Scholars have developed related ideas about cognitive inertia. Healey and Hodgkinson (2008) similarly refer to “overdependence on extant mental representations”, with a particular focus on where actors’ mental models “fail to change adequately and sufficiently quickly” (similar to Tom Dicke’s definition) such as in the context of changes to an organisation’s external environment and related forms of strategic inertia.
However, Dicke’s research on the 1918-19 ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic also suggests a further dimension that may be related to additional conceptualisations of cognitive inertia. He notes that people had access to timely sources of information that suggested a changed reality and consequently argues that “ignorance was not the cause of their indifference.” Rather he suggests cognitive inertia blinded them “to the implications of the extensive coverage” pointing to the role of such factors in how information is interpreted.
Related to this, cognitive change may lag behind changes to relevant bodies of evidence due, in part, to how it is interpreted. A key question is why this occurs.
Regarding the current coronavirus pandemic, I have frequently felt that emerging information from scientific studies is being inadequately considered whether that be basic epidemiological features of COVID-19 (and related emerging scientific facts regarding highly variable susceptibility), emerging epidemiological and immunological insights concerning past exposure to other pathogens (e.g. cross-reactive immunity due to exposure to other coronaviruses) and studies of infection fatality rates, amongst other aspects. Much has been learned since the heady days of March.
To the extent that additional forms of cognitive inertia exist (in addition to those that can blind people to danger) an important question is why and how to address this. One idea suggested by the observations of scholars like Bhattacharya is that the strength of initial impressions and intensity of related cognition – in this case about COVID-19 (and associated initial beliefs about SARS-CoV-2) – may blind people to the significance or implications of emerging information (about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19) if it is inconsistent with those initial impressions. For example, actors may have a prolonged tendency to be unreasonably skeptical in their interpretation of such research findings.
My sense is that both forms of cognitive inertia are relevant in the pandemic. Some people do seem to be blind to the fact that COVID-19 is different to other respiratory viral infections, with some epidemiological and pathophysiological characteristics that differ from other common respiratory diseases, and this may be partly due to their existing beliefs about such infections. Additionally, my impression is that cognitive change commonly lags changes to relevant bodies of evidence (but this proposition requires much more inquiry).
Regarding the latter aspect, it may be possible to explore potential forms of cognitive inertia that may related to the unusual social intensity of the February-March period during which initial parts of China were put under lockdown, a global pandemic was officially declared (by the World Health Organisation on March 11), and other parts of the world also introduced lockdowns in late March (including where I live). In those days there was also frequent reference to being “X number of days” behind Italy or other locations where the epidemic was then most intense and media coverage of the pandemic was near 24/7.
Key questions could be: did/do we see related forms of cognitive inertia and, if so, what are its causes (e.g. such as those I sketched above)? Additionally, to the extent that it exists, what are its effects on, for example, the COVID-19 policies which are adopted (or not)?
On the other hand, it is also important to consider whether some epidemiologists who weren’t in favour of blanket lockdowns may have formed initial impressions about COVID-19 that they were too slow to correct in relation to the actual dangers of COVID-19. Such questions also suggest lines of inquiry that are worth considering.