Covid-19 And Human (Ir)Rationality— PART 1

With COVID being the topic that dominates our media, it’s pretty hard to get away from.

While I’m not particularly interested in pandemics, I do find it an interesting and unique opportunity to observe human behavior.

There are a few things I’d like to discuss in today’s essay:

I’ve decided to split it up into multiple parts instead, so today we’ll just examine point i.

i. Behavioral Psychology

COVID is a perfect example of why technological innovation is not enough. With no vaccine available yet, how do you get experts to share their knowledge in a way such that it actually gets absorbed? How can we combat laid-back governmental approaches? Why are certain governments laid-back to begin with? How can we influence human behavior such that people self-isolate, wash their hands, and generally help decrease the rate at which COVID spreads?

ii. Hoarding and Scalping

A subset of people have started hoarding and scalping basic supplies. Why? And what are the ethics of price gouging? Should this be regulated (conservative) or would this be better solved by free markets (liberal)? Are such people balancing market inefficiencies or creating them? Can we create worse situations with good intentions?

iii. Injecting Randomness

It’s safe to say that a lot of people’s routines have been turned upside down. Companies being forced to do remote. People’s automated routines being disrupted. Could there be a strange upside here, or not?


There are many technological problems. Before you can influence people you should know toward what end. What are you trying to accomplish? What is the truth?

Science can answer these questions. What’s the basic reproduction rate? How should we judge risk? Why does it spread? What measures are effective?

But while creatives are well aware that they lack the tools to do the job of scientists, there’s often an unconscious assumption that that line of reasoning need not travel in the opposite direction. And as it is with all things, the less you know, the easier it is to fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap.

So you see smart people trying to influence behavior with stats, graphs, and complex lexicon. But because we’re all capable of understanding English as opposed to mathematics, there’s a tendency to overestimate the complexity of math (due to intimidation of strange symbols) and to underestimate the complexity of influencing behavior (because we all speak English). I.e. It’s tempting to think, ex post facto, that it’s easy to run through the maze after you’ve been guided through it.

This is a fascinating bias I call tool bias (if it has an official name, let me know), which ties the complexity of the tool to the perception of difficulty. Math can appear complex even when the application is very simple. Influencing behavior can appear simple even when the application is very complex. This phenomenon occurs in comedy as well. It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is to create a good set because the tools (language) are simple, so while you laugh you think, I could do this easily.

So how do you get experts to communicate their knowledge effectively? Answer: you don’t. While this job needs to get done, the person who does it is relatively fungible. I.e. Structural integrity tests need to be run at SpaceX but it need not be Elon who runs them.

When scientists have figured out part of the puzzle, it needs to get passed onto the creative department if you will, just like you’d do with a brief for an ad agency.


Hundreds of thousands of years have selected for humans that are best adapted to the environments such that they pass on their genes. One trait of past environments was risk. Risk of being eaten. Risk of starving. Risk of getting killed. Risk of an accident which results in you killing yourself, and so on.

So it makes sense that from an evolutionary perspective, humans that were best able to reduce individual risk had a higher chance of passing on their genes.

This creates biases in us where we fear spiders more than we fear doctors with messy handwriting. Even though messy handwriting which causes patients to receive the wrong dosage or incorrect medicine has an astronomically higher probability of killing you than a spider does (Sokol & Hettige, 2006; see also Ennik, 1980).

And then there’s systemic risk (Taleb & Norman, 2020). Behavior that’s pretty safe for an individual can be highly risky for the collective.

Younglings who’ve read How Our Physics Envy Results In False Confidence In Our Organizations might recognize the similarities with ergodicity economics; analyzing a system using an ensemble perspective need not equal an analysis using a time perspective. So a decision can be both good and bad depending on whether you look at it from the POV of the collective or the individual.

When individual risk is low but systemic risk is a risk to all, it’ll still feel rational to act in a conservative way. But that would maximize the rate (R0) at which COVID spreads if adopted by all, which would optimize harm done at the systemic level (Ecdc, 2020).

Healthcare gets overloaded if the people that would get sick get sick at the same time. Non-related emergencies might not be treated due to a lack of resources. Doctors might need to choose between patients. More doctors and healthcare staff might get sick due to a scarcity of masks and other materials (which decreases the number of patients that can be treated). And if the maximum number of people are infected, the number of people that get sick is higher than if fewer people get infected by using social distancing. After 14 days in quarantine and not getting sick, the probability that you’ll infect someone is low. If you do get sick, then the probability that you’ll infect others after about 10 days of showing symptoms, is also low. There also might be second-order risks such as hoarding, scalping, riots and such.

Acting rationally will harm others initially, and then it’ll harm you as well. So the right course of action is to act irrationally; to ‘overreact/panic’ at the individual level to minimize systemic risk.

In essence, this is a technical way of saying: ‘sometimes, things that feel dangerous are safe, and things that feel safe are dangerous.’


Experts in advertising have taught us that influence follows a predictable pattern in precisely the following order:

i. Get the attention of the consumer

ii. Communicate CLEARLY to the consumer

iii. Persuade the consumer

In order to persuade, you must communicate, and in order to communicate, you must first get the attention of the consumer.

Nearly 90% of ads aren’t remembered, and this is being done by so-called experts in my industry!

So clearly, the hardest part is getting attention.

When we have the attention of people, we need to communicate. That requires that we’re crystal clear on what 1 thing we wish to communicate in our message. And it needs to be digestible for the average person without them having to expend any effort.

Let’s take ‘washing hands more frequently’. You don’t want to run a campaign with washing hands, and social distancing, and coughing in the elbow, and doing elbow bumps instead of handshakes, all in one campaign. [1]

It’s also important that it’s created with Kahneman’s system 1 (or fast thinking) in mind (Kahneman, 2014; see also Kannengiesser & Gero, 2019).

Can the message be absorbed by scrolling past it, quickly glancing at it or walking past it? Does your grandma understand what’s being said? How about your 7-year-old niece?

If it meets those criteria it’s probably good. Simplicity is your friend.

And finally, you need to persuade the person we’re talking to. Give them a reason to do what we’d like them to do.

The fact that hand sanitizer is hoarded is a sign of the poor job that’s being done on communicating the superior effectiveness of soap. Professor Thordarson’s thread on why soap is so effective against viruses.

We know that women are better at grabbing attention than men for both men and women, so running a campaign with an attractive celebrity would likely grab people’s attention.

The headline of the copy or the intro of an ad could be something along the lines of:

‘’Do you know the single, most effective way to protect yourself during the Corona outbreak?’’

‘’Yeah.. me neither. Turns out, that it’s social distancing. But properly washing your hands is a close second. It actually kills the viruses.’’

Followed by a demonstration of how to properly wash your hands.

This would cover all the bases, attention, communication, and persuasion.

Now as you might remember from Alchemy: Turning Words Into Money (The best guide on the web when it comes to writing effective sales copy), it does not matter how great your starting point is, it is still merely a starting point.

This means it’s important to test at a small scale such that we can test its effectiveness. Creative work is not like mathematical work. We do the best we can, present it to reality and see what happens. Using things like split tests and gauging its reception, we can get a feel for how good of a job our campaign is doing.


[1] Those elbow bumps are quite possibly the dumbest thing I’ve seen in my career. It’s clear that no one with even a minimal understanding of human behavior was involved. This is another clear sign of the overestimation of tech and the underestimation of creative. People didn’t feel the need to include experts because it never occurred to them there are right ways and wrong ways to solve the problem of replacing handshakes.

Handshakes are deeply ingrained so it’s already a tall order. That’s made even worse by this new, socially embarrassing behavior. If you want people to replace a culture behavior it either needs to be cool or have a low amount of friction.

You could make it cool by having celebrities and influencers do that elbow thing, but why learn a new behavior. The simple nod is something that we’ve been doing for ages. It would be much easier to replace the handshake with a nod or a slight bow.


Ennik F. (1980). Deaths from bites and stings of venomous animals. The Western journal of medicine, 133(6), 463–468.

European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic: increased transmission in the EU/EEA and the UK — sixth update — 12 March 2020. Stockholm: ECDC; 2020

Kannengiesser, Udo & Gero, John. (2019). Empirical Evidence for Kahneman’s System 1 and System 2 Thinking in Design.

Sokol, D. K., & Hettige, S. (2006). Poor handwriting remains a significant problem in medicine. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 99(12), 645–646.

Taleb, N., & Norman, J. (2020). Ethics of Precaution:Individual and Systemic Risk. Retrieved from

Originally published on Youngling & Feynman. Enjoyed this? Then you’ll love our other essays. Click me and I’ll take you there.



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