Cognitive Bias and Public Health Policy During the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Scott D. Halpern, Robert D. Truog & Franklin G. Miller

Journal of the American Medical Association

As the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic abates in many countries worldwide, and a new normal phase arrives, critically assessing policy responses to this public health crisis may promote better preparedness for the next wave or the next pandemic. A key lesson is revealed by one of the earliest and most sizeable US federal responses to the pandemic: the investment of $3 billion to build more ventilators. These extra ventilators, even had they been needed, would likely have done little to improve population survival because of the high mortality among patients with COVID-19 who require mechanical ventilation and diversion of clinicians away from more health-promoting endeavors.1 Yet most US residents supported this response because the belief that enough ventilators would be available averted their having to contemplate potentially preventable deaths due to insufficient supply of these devices.

Why are so many people distressed at the possibility that a patient in plain view—such as a person presenting to an emergency department with severe respiratory distress—would be denied an attempt at rescue because of a ventilator shortfall, but do not mount similarly impassioned concerns regarding failures to implement earlier, more aggressive physical distancing, testing, and contact tracing policies that would have saved far more lives?2 These inconsistent responses may be related to errors in human cognition that prioritize the readily imaginable over the statistical, the present over the future, and the direct over the indirect. Together, these biases may have promoted medicalized responses to and messaging about the pandemic, rather than those rooted in the traditions and practices of public health.

These cognitive errors, which distract leaders from optimal policy making and citizens from taking steps to promote their own and others’ interests, cannot merely be ascribed to repudiations of science. Rather, these biases are pervasive and may have been evolutionarily selected. Even at academic medical centers, where a premium is placed on having science guide policy, COVID-19 action plans prioritized expanding critical care capacity at the outset, and many clinicians treated seriously ill patients with drugs with little evidence of effectiveness, often before these institutions and clinicians enacted strategies to prevent spread of disease.

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Picture: PROPOLI87 / CC BY-SA (

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