Guest Post: Battle of the Curves: The Coronavirus Versus Human Decision Making (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article, I described the general problem of making decisions in complex environments, along with a decision I made in the face of the coronavirus. Here, I’ll show you how to solve the problem shown above in complex and rapidly changing situations as we are in today with the coronavirus.

As I think forward to future choices that I’ll need to make, I ask myself, “Isn’t there a better way?” The answer is “yes”, using a new discipline called Decision Intelligence (DI). I’ve written about how DI relates to risk management, employment for persons with disabilities, new forms of government, wealth inequality, and the law. These are good domains for DI, but for COVID-19, DI solves one of the most essential problems: helping people to think through how their choices and actions impact themselves, their community, and more. Specifically, DI will help people to understand a countervailing “viral” positive effect: even a small shift in our billions of decisions can make a huge difference.  And isn’t it well past the time when we should have brought AI technology to all of us? Human decision making is one of the world’s most underutilized sustainable resources.

The situation

I’ve heard a lot of information from news sources about the COVID-19 virus. Yet it’s hard to assemble this information to decide what to do. There are plenty of facts (x% of patients die from it) and predictions (if we start social isolation, we can flatten the curve).

But facts and predictions only go so far.  What I need is an answer to: “If I make this decision, given all of this information, what’s the outcome”?  I need computers to go beyond providing information and answers: I need them to advise me on the consequences of my actions.

With COVID-19, our challenge is to contain the spread and to limit its impact. If we make the right decisions, we save lives and limit economic impacts; as countries fail at this, their death toll is increasing by an order of magnitude. In addition, many are worried about the knock on economic impacts of pandemics.

Articles like Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now and Flattening the Coronavirus Curve are great, but they only go so far; they address the cloud above only in pieces of information, which are not stitched together so that I can understand how actions lead to outcomes.

Source: NYT “Flattening the Coronavirus Curve”

Why do we struggle with understanding how to take the best actions in the face of curves like those shown above? It turns out that human rationality is “bounded”. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains in Thinking Fast and Slow, that, “people aren’t first and foremost foresighted utility maximizers, but react to changes in terms of gains and losses. Gains and losses are short-term, they’re immediate, emotional reactions. This makes an enormous difference to the quality of decisions.” This situation is captured in what has come to be called the “lobster claw” pattern, shown below. We are simply not able to think beyond a certain time horizon, and we tend to imagine that the future will simply be an extension of today. We are not good in thinking through patterns that, like the coronavirus growth pattern, are curved, or “nonlinear”.

In Part 3 of this article, I’ll show you the solution to this problem: a unique approach that gives us intuitions into this kind of otherwise invisible pattern, and, I believe has the potential to improve our behavior on a massive scale in this situation. Continue to Part 3 >>

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