Covid-19 and Monty Hall’s goats – why we are making the wrong decisions everywhere

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Covid-19 and Monty Hall’s goats – why we are making the wrong decisions everywhere

By Jon Harris">Jon HarrisIn standard27th June, 2020

Most countries’ and communities’ Covid-19 policies are wrong. A classic historical description of a particular cognitive bias, the so-called “Monty Hall” problem, shows why.

Monty Hall was a US game show host in the 1960’s and 70’s. In Behavioural Safety training, we often speak about a favourite game on his show “Let’s Make A Deal”, in which contestants were asked to choose doors, two of which gave them a useless prize (Hall was fond of the example of a goat) and one of which held a great prize, say a car. The game turns when one of the useless doors is removed and contestants are given the chance to change their original choice. A huge proportion would choose to stick with their original choice.

Long articles by eminent statisticians are widely available which explain why sticking is the wrong mathematical choice. That doesn’t really matter here. As Behavioural Safety psychologists we are more interested in why, when the choice to stick to the original choice obviously cannot possibly be better than 50:50, the proportion of contestants who choose to stick is so much greater than 50% – it’s more like 90%.

It’s as if we are conditioned to find our original instincts ‘safer’, even in the face of objective evidence to the contrary.

Kahneman, Tversky and other behavioural psychologists have taught us a great deal about cognitive bias, and building on their work Jonathan Baron specifically posited the concept of “commission-omission bias”. Baron’s research showed that if something is going to go wrong, we would prefer to be held to account for what we did not do, rather than for what we did. We appear to value a quiet life, a passive approach, over and above a strong choice made for good reasons.

Baron’s research showed, for example, that NBA basketball referees were less likely to award fouls in the closing minutes of tight games than at other times.

In Behavioural Safety training work, we often find that participants in industries such as construction and heavy manufacturing strongly recognise situations in which they have held back from addressing a situation or raising a safety concern about which they are not quite sure. They may value avoiding the embarrassment of ‘commission’ over the potential, if unlikely, consequences of ‘omission’. My own work with managements of such organisations always encourages them to try to foster a culture where no such embarrassment occurs.

This tells us something valuable about our responses to the present crisis, and the dilemma of how to ‘lift the lockdown’ safely.

This weekend I heard of a tennis club which has decided, in line with Lawn Tennis Association guidance, to restart group tennis activities while observing sensible physical distancing procedures. So far so good. However, the club has decided not to open its toilet building, even though some of the sessions taking place are three hours long and not all club members live close to the club.

It is entirely evident to anyone with the present publicly-announced data on Covid-19 infections, a calculator and a pencil, that the chances of any tennis club member contracting Covid-19 as a result of using the toilet in accordance with the LTA’s published guidelines are incredibly small – something like the chances of winning a lottery.

Compare this to the chances of players becoming dehydrated if they restrict their water intake during strenuous exercise on a hot day, for fear that they will need to rush away to use the loo if they do not restrict it. Those chances are clearly multiple times higher.

Yet when challenged about its decision, the club defended its actions on the grounds that they were sensibly ‘cautious’. It’s quite an amazing piece of doublethink, isn’t it? The course of action which is evidently the more dangerous is held to be the more cautious.

Of course, there’s a long debate to be had in the future about whether, and to what extent, lockdowns were or were not the right policy; whether the cure was worse than the disease, etc. The jury will be out for some time.

But it is pretty clear to me that in the vacuum created by imperfect virological conclusions, cognitive biases are alive and well, and driving decisions to plainly the wrong conclusions – of course with other influences such as economic concerns, personal politics etc. Unfortunately this is happening in governments as well as at tennis clubs.

Please, whatever you do, drink a lot of water if you are exercising, especially in hot weather.

2 thoughts on “Covid-19 and Monty Hall’s goats – why we are making the wrong decisions everywhere”

  1. Interesting piece Jon. I think that perhaps the commission / omission choice might also be down, in part, to organisations’ views on the likelihood of being legally accountable for actions versus inactions. It’s perhaps easier to prove the positive (action caused harm) than to prove a thought processes behind the negative (inaction caused harm, but was it due to deliberate negligence or human error?) Pre-Covid we just had the ‘jobsworth’ / ‘health & safety’ excuses. It’s simply another weapon in the cop-out armoury.

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