A person wears a medical mask, face shield and medical gloves as they sanitize an outdoor dining area.
Risk or reward? Outdoor dining may be relatively safe, but you should still consider social distancing guidelines and other safety measures. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Ever find yourself trying to rationalize risky behavior? Notice other people doing this?

Without realizing it, you or those around you might be leaning on thought processes that social psychologists have identified as problematic.

You’ve probably read news stories recently about people who have failed to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.

Some have shunned social distancing guidelines.

Others have scoffed at the notion of wearing masks.

The fact is, there will always be those who fail to properly assess risk.

Writer A.C. Shilton pointed out two social psychology concepts in this respect: optimistic bias and confirmation bias.

Optimistic bias is when we believe we are less likely to have something bad happen to us.

Confirmation bias is when we seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas.

By learning to recognize these thought paradigms—and respond to them properly—we can make better decisions that lead to healthier outcomes.

Too optimistic?

Despite all evidence to the contrary, some of us will convince ourselves that we’re following sound strategies to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You might say to yourself: “Because I wash my hands and wear a face mask, I can do pretty much whatever I want.”

We all know that’s not true.

Regardless of how often we wash hands or how fastidious we are about wearing masks, we know it’s still risky to attend events where large crowds are gathered.

We might even give ourselves a lot of leeway, only to be hyper-critical of others.

When bad things happen to other people, for example, we might look for ways to blame them for their outcome: “Well, they had an underlying health condition,” or “They must have made bad choices.”

It’s all too easy to place blame on others, while reassuring ourselves that we’re still safe because our decisions and actions are somehow different.

The truth is, we all have plenty of blind spots.

Seeking to confirm our beliefs?

Confirmation bias is when someone seeks out information that fits what they currently believe, or when someone validates views or realities that only match their belief.

I could read a list of least-to-most-dangerous environments for the transmission of COVID-19 and think, “Well, I’m eating outside at a restaurant—I’m safe.”

But depending on where you’re eating, you may not be so safe.

Some cities have terribly high numbers of COVID-19 cases, which would make their venues less safe. Bars are recognized as problematic gathering areas.

You’ve probably seen instances of confirmation bias without really thinking about it.

Ever notice those people on Facebook or other social media who only give credence to news articles or information shared by like-minded individuals?

If I miss traveling and really want to do it, despite the risks involved, I might only seek out sources that highlight why it’s OK to travel.

These are examples of this psychology principle.

Cognitive dissonance

There’s also the issue of cognitive dissonance—the mental discomfort experienced when our thoughts or behaviors conflict.

It makes us feel uneasy.

Two psychologist authors pointed to the example of smoking.

The act of smoking conflicts with the reality that smoking can kill. A smoker attempts to resolve this conflict by justifying the action—“I only smoke once a week.”

We rationalize in an attempt to minimize any internal conflict.

We also seek out information that justifies our behavior, or makes us feel like we’re an exception to the rule.

This is endlessly apparent as we watch people react to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is seen in the young adult who says, “I really want to see my friends and go out to the bar.” This activity conflicts with recommendations from health leaders, who have explained that bars are largely unsafe and hotspots of virus transmission.

But this same young person might convince themselves, “I’m young and healthy. I’ll wash my hands and wear a mask. Therefore I’ll be safe. Even if I do get sick, it’s no big deal.”

Confirmation bias, optimistic bias and cognitive dissonance are all at play here.

These ideas teach us that we are quick to dismiss risk, not because we are bad people, but because we want to increase our sense of safety in a world that is sometimes unsafe.

We want to do as we please. It’s a natural human tendency, observable even at the youngest of ages. When we feel like we’re being told what to do, it stirs up rebellious feelings.

For example, when the state of Michigan issued a mandate requiring people to wear masks in public, the order immediately stirred a “no-one-tells-me-what-to-do” response from some.

Some people felt defiant and angry.

And because behaviors follow thoughts and emotions, many people made the unsafe choice to not wear a mask.

Risk vs. reward

Ultimately, we all have to stop and weigh our emotional responses and understand where they’re coming from.

When we understand our emotions, we can adjust our thinking. Wearing a mask may be annoying, but we know it helps stop the spread of disease.

With proper risk assessment—and assessment of self—our emotions become more balanced and our behaviors become more responsible.

We will always struggle with uncertainty.

That’s part of human nature.

We miss the freedom and options available to us prior to this pandemic. We miss seeing family and friends on a whim.

We’re all eager to “get back to normal” and to feel safe on a more consistent basis.

Unfortunately, as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to rise—especially here in West Michigan—it’s clear things are not yet safe.

COVID-19 will likely remain a serious concern for awhile.

We have to find a way to enjoy life, safely.

The best way to do this is to embrace “the new rules” and make them personally meaningful.

Say to yourself, “I wear a mask to protect others and myself.” It may help to identify a specific person or group that may benefit from your cautious actions.

If you find a particular rule challenging, remind yourself it gets easier with time.

The first day I wore a mask in the grocery store, I felt upset and anxious. I didn’t want to grocery shop at all if it meant I had to do it that way.

Now the mask is just another accessory I take with me, just like my keys or my wallet.

We can move to a place of acceptance, as we accept that risk is still present.

We can still live a happy life and have positive experiences amid the pandemic.

You should remind yourself that everything you do is associated with some degree of risk. Consider the consequences of your risks. Ask yourself if it’s worth it.

Some other tips:

  • Talk to people and read articles from different perspectives, including those that might challenge you to think differently. Ultimately, use science-backed resources.
  • Try to balance out all-or-nothing thoughts or beliefs. This applies to times when you tell yourself that an activity is “completely safe or unsafe,” or when you think something won’t happen to you.
  • Work toward an acceptance of risk. Consider ways to have fun and connect with others. Try new things that can be done in accordance with safety guidelines.
  • Remember: Nothing is permanent. By following safety precautions, we create time for solutions to be developed and prevent the spread of disease.