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For COVID-19 facts, first impressions matter

The first set of information you get is easy to get stuck on

SWITZERLAND-WHO-HEALTH-VIRUS Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP via Getty Images

Researchers have learned a lot about the new coronavirus in the 233 days since officials in China reported cases of a then-unknown disease to the World Health Organization. Much of what they’ve learned upended their early assumptions about the virus. The changes aren’t just hard to keep track of; they also make it hard to adjust to new recommendations.

Initially, researchers thought it spread almost entirely through droplets of mucus or spit between people in close proximity. Now, we know it can spread through the air. Researchers thought that it was mostly passed between people with obvious symptoms. Now we know that people can contract the virus and never be visibly sick.

During an emergency like a pandemic, it’s entirely normal for conclusions to change quickly as new information emerges. But even though it’s normal, it can feel like whiplash trying to keep up with the research. It’s even harder because people are prone to grabbing on to the first piece of information they learn about a topic. Once they do, that initial impression is hard to dislodge. It’s a phenomenon called anchoring bias.

“We tend to kind of seize on the first bit of information that we get, and then that becomes a reference point against which we judge all other information,” says Bradley Adame, an associate professor of communication at Arizona State University.

Psychological phenomena like this are supposed to be helpful. They give us shortcuts to think through problems, saving time. It takes less mental energy to make a decision based on information you already have than it would to make one without that context. But the bias becomes a problem in situations like a pandemic when the best thing to do is constantly adjust your thinking based on new information. If someone anchors on to the first set of details, they might be less likely to follow or understand recommendations based on an update.

In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, for example, US experts and the WHO said that people shouldn’t wear masks in their day-to-day lives. At the time, most people thought the coronavirus spread through close contact with people who were sick and that only people who showed symptoms could spread the disease. Some people were in favor of masks, but most major public health organizations recommended against them — in part because they were worried about shortages.

Then research started showing that the virus spreads through tinier particles that lingered in the air, and that people who didn’t feel sick could still be contagious. Under that updated paradigm, masks were important and could help stop the spread of disease. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that people should wear cloth masks in public settings.

But the early message that masks weren’t necessary was hard to dislodge. “People pick up the very first version of the guidelines, and the perception that masks actually are not that effective, and they stick to that,” says Taha Yasseri, an associate professor of sociology at University College Dublin. “It’s very hard to update that information.”

Another sticky idea was that most cases of COVID-19 were mild and that symptoms would pass in a week or two. As the months passed, though, some people with mild cases that didn’t require hospitalization started reporting that they’d had debilitating symptoms for months. So-called “long-haulers” are slowly getting more recognition, but many say they have a hard time getting help or even recognition from doctors because the early narrative that the illness would pass is still pervasive.

People also continue to cite the fatality rate of COVID-19, which is around 1 percent, as a reason to not worry about its impact, Adame says. “People seem to anchor onto that piece of information and use it to make all sorts of other judgements,” he says. They don’t consider the raw number of people who have died or the long-term effects of catching (but not dying from) the disease. “All of that is neglected when we anchor to that seemingly low death rate. That low number is a mischaracterization of what’s actually happening,” Adame says.

Statistics and numbers like the fatality rate are particularly easy to anchor on, Yasseri says. Messaging should avoid emphasizing them because they change frequently and can be misleading. “Perceptions get formed around the first numbers,” he says, and it takes a lot of mental effort to constantly update those numbers within a mental store of information.

Just knowing that anchoring bias exists isn’t enough to stop it from happening. Experiments show that, even when people are told that they’ll probably anchor on an early bit of information, they still do it. “It’s a very powerful cognitive process,” Adame says.

What can dislodge anchors are other psychological factors that we use to make decisions. If we hear a message from a source we find trustworthy, that information is sticky, too. And if we hear the same message repeated from multiple trustworthy sources, that also helps scrape away outdated information and replace it with updated facts. “Most people are then inclined to follow that lead,” Adame says. “Those supersede the anchoring bias.”

The US response to the pandemic, though, has been characterized by mixed and contradictory messaging, and public health groups that most people find trustworthy (like the CDC) have been sidelined. “What we have is inconsistent messaging, sometimes from the same source,” Rob Blair, an assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University, told The Verge in April.

Without trustworthy, strategic messaging, there’s nothing to overpower the initial anchoring bias people instinctively have when they get new information. “If we had leaders who were motivated to protect people, they could unify as a singular voice,” Adame says. “All of a sudden, that bias is mitigated.”