By Patrick Carroll
A pastor put out a humorous Twitter poll a few months ago asking how people interpreted “15 days to slow the spread.” Referencing religious debates about creation, the options were as follows.
- 15 literal days
- 15 ages
- 14 literal days, big gap, 15th day
- Entirely metaphorical
The joke raises a serious point. “15 days to slow the spread” has turned out to be anything but literal. Indeed, it’s now been over a year. Whereas lockdowns were originally sold as a short-term measure to “flatten the curve” and avoid overwhelming the medical system, they have now become the knee-jerk policy response for politicians whenever case numbers so much as inch upwards.
But why the shifting goalposts? Why have we become so wedded to a strategy that was only meant to be temporary (and has proven to be largely ineffective)?
The answer, ostensibly, is concern for public health. But there’s another possible explanation having to do with psychology.
A Fixed Mindset
There’s a well-known cognitive bias called anchoring bias, which is the tendency to fixate on an initial piece of information or approach when making decisions. Even when our starting approach clearly flops, we tend to stubbornly stick to the track we’re already on.
Instances of anchoring bias are everywhere. In chess, for example, players have an impulse to make the first decent move that comes into their head without thinking through all the other options. Hence, a frequently cited maxim in chess is: “when you find a good move, look for a better one.”
Our approach to schooling also suffers from this problem. The traditional lecturing method has become the familiar, default teaching style, even though it’s poorly suited for many students. Alternative approaches such as collaborative problem-solving, self-guided education or experiential learning are not pursued as much as they should be because many teachers and institutions are anchored to the lecture-based approach.
The same thing is likely happening with the response to COVID-19. Since lockdowns were the first major policy consideration, they became the focal point of response efforts. Hence, the search for alternative solutions was prematurely cut short because we figured we had already found the tool we needed.
But the problem with relying on the first tool we find is that we start to assume that it’s the best tool for every job. As the saying goes, “if the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
Indeed, with lockdowns in hand, politicians began whacking away at everything they could find. Businesses? Close them. Churches? Shut them down. Schools? Don’t even think about it. No matter what the context was, lockdowns were the prescribed solution in just about every case, and they continue to be widely used to this day.
The problem, of course, is that lockdowns have proven to be a dreadfully ill-suited tool for the job. It’s like trying to use a hammer to drive in a screw. It’s a brute force method that will be unrefined at best, and you’ll probably just end up breaking something while failing to achieve your objective. Indeed, lockdowns have wreaked havoc on people’s lives, and they have yet to produce any significant benefits.
Some Possible Alternatives
So what would be a better approach? Well, one idea would be to remove restrictions on the development of testing kits. If private companies were allowed to develop and sell their own kits as they saw fit, testing would likely become far more affordable and ubiquitous, to the point where everyone could get tested weekly or even daily. With widespread testing in place, asymptomatic carriers would know to stay home if they test positive, and everyone else would be able to go on with their lives as normal because they would know that they don’t have the virus.
Another approach would be to remove barriers to vaccine development, such as lengthy trial requirements and other regulations. If private companies were allowed to compete in a free market for vaccines, they could develop safe and effective products in very short order and at a fraction of the cost.
Ironically, it is government health agencies that are putting up the biggest barriers to these alternative solutions. They think their heavy-handed approach will make things better, but in reality the best thing they can do is get out of the way.
How to Overcome Anchoring
Anchoring on the first solution we think of is a universal human tendency, of course, but it tends to be especially pervasive in governments. From schooling to lockdowns to just about every other matter, governments tend to be stuck in their ways and slow to adjust.
This isn’t just a coincidence, however. In fact, it’s the natural result of the incentives that are built into the system. Since governments don’t face competition and taxpayers have no choice but to fund them, there is no pressure for them to put in the effort to innovate or improve. As a result, ineffective and harmful practices tend to stick around, even long after their deficiencies have come to light.
But free markets are different. Since private companies face competition and their customers can walk away, they have to constantly adapt their practices to meet people’s needs as best as possible. Businesses that come up with new and better solutions are rewarded with higher profits and are thus encouraged to grow, whereas companies that are stuck in the past quickly suffer losses and eventually go out of business.
Free markets, then, are the key to overcoming anchoring bias. Indeed, competition and consumer choice are the primary drivers of innovation and progress.
With governments on the other hand….well, let’s just hope the lockdowns don’t last another year.