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

Bottom Line:

Cognitive errors may distract policy makers and citizens from making appropriate public health decisions that reduce the impact of COVID-19 across the entire population.


Halpern, SD. et al. Cognitive Bias and Public Health Policy During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA (2020). doi:10.1001/jama.2020.11623

Date Published:

29 June 2020


Despite an emphasis on using evidence to guide policy, many clinicians often become more focused on sick patients who are in plain view (e.g. $3 billion investment in ventilators in the US) compared to implementing adequate public health measures (physical distancing, testing, contact tracing). There are several cognitive errors, which may be intrinsic to the human experience, that may lead people to these poor decisions. The identifiable victim effect describes the nature of humans to respond more aggressively to threats to lives that one can easily imagine as one’s own. Optimism bias is a tendency to predict outcomes that are more favourable than those actually observed, present bias is a tendency to focus on immediate short-term benefits, and omission bias is a tendency that harm rather occur by failure to take action than by a consequence of a direct action. Taken together, identifying these cognitive biases can strengthen the efforts of policy makers to implement public health measures to lessen the burden of COVID-19 mortality and morbidity on the population.

Summary by: Mike Ge