Interview with Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Hello Everyone,
We got the privilege to connect with Dr. Gleb regarding the pandemic. He is an Speaker, Coach, neuroscientist and best selling author of Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions,The Blindspots Between Us. Feel free to connect with him here

1) Why were we so badly prepared for and underestimated the COVID-19 pandemic?

We suffer from many dangerous judgment errors that researchers in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics like myself call cognitive biases. These mental blindspots result from a combination of our evolutionary background and specific structural features in how our brains are wired.

 The cognitive bias most at blame for our drastic underestimation of the huge disruption brought by the COVID-19 coronavirus is the normalcy bias. This dangerous judgment error causes our brains to assume things will keep going as they have been — normally — and evaluate the short and medium-term future of the next few years based on our past experience of the last few years. As a result, we underestimate drastically both the likelihood of a serious disruption occurring and the impact of one if it does occur.

 The normalcy bias leads individuals, businesses, and governments to fail to prepare nearly as well as they should for the likelihood and effects of catastrophes, especially slow-moving train wrecks such as pandemics. Moreover, in the midst of the event itself, people react much slower than they ideally should, getting stuck in the mode of gathering information instead of deciding and acting.

 When we make plans, we naturally believe that the future will go according to plan. That wrong-headed cognitive bias, the planning fallacy, results in us not preparing for contingencies and problems, both predictable ones and unknown unknowns. This cognitive bias helps explain our lack of preparation for the pandemic.

We also suffer from the tendency to prioritize the short term, and undercount the importance of medium and long-term outcomes. Known as hyperbolic discounting, this cognitive bias is especially bad for addressing the potential long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.


2) What explains the panicked behavior of many in response to the pandemic, such as panic shopping, while others ignored guidelines about social distancing and other behavior changes to fight the pandemic and save lives?

Our primary threat response, which stems from the ancient savanna environment, is the fight-or-flight response, also known as the saber-tooth tiger response. A great fit for the kind of short-term intense risks we faced as hunter-gatherers, the fight-or-flight response results in terrible decisions in the modern environment. It’s particularly bad for defending us from major disruptions caused by the slow-moving train wrecks we face in the modern environment, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

 In particular, the fight response causes us to take immediate actions that we perceive as solving the problem, such as buying toilet paper and guns, as so many did in response to COVID-19.  Others fell into the flight response, with many trying to go to a different area that they thought would be less impacted by the pandemic. In some people, the flight response manifested as the freeze response, where people flee into themselves, meaning fleeing from the information about the pandemic. They thus ignored official directives to behave differently.

 Of course, neither of these is the right response for the situation at hand. Fleeing an area or stocking up is fine for the typical disasters that strike a region, such as a hurricane that might cause major flooding as happened in Houston in September 2019. It’s not a good fit for the COVID-19 pandemic.


Another mental failure mode plaguing us during this pandemic is emotional contagion. People are infected by the emotions of those they perceive as their leaders. Many political leaders at first downplayed the pandemic, such as by equating it to the cold or flu. Some political leaders accused their opponents of exaggerating the impact of the pandemic for political gain. No wonder the followers of these political leaders ignored and, in some cases, continue to ignore social distancing guidelines. Tragically, we have many documented instances where their failures led to the death of their loved ones.


3) How should we shift our thinking to deal with the reality of the pandemic?


First, we have to adopt a realistic and even a pessimistic perspective, not a super-optimistic perspective as so many are adopting, whether political or business leaders, or private citizens. It’s inherently uncomfortable to prepare for the realistic pessimistic scenario. That feeling of discomfort is you going against your gut reactions, which is what research shows is needed for you to defeat cognitive biases. We’re in a new normal, one that seriously disrupted our lives for the next several years.


What does realistic pessimism mean in the case of the pandemic? To understand that requires grasping the nature of COVID-19.

The novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 is highly infectious. Each infected person on average infects 2-3 others and the infection doubling every 3–6 days in any outbreak that’s not suppressed. 

About 10% of those who get sick require intensive hospital care, and .5% die with good hospital care. The hospitalization and death rates are much higher for those older or younger people with health issues. The rapid growth of outbreaks, combined with the lack of hospital capacity, results in medical systems quickly becoming overwhelmed if governments don’t take measures to control an outbreak. In those cases, death rates balloon to 5%, and much higher for those more vulnerable.


We know that government measures to suppress COVID-19 by shutting down businesses, restricting travel, and directing citizens to stay at home are indeed effective at preventing transmission and reducing new cases. Yet when governments loosen such restrictions, outbreaks occur again and the disease spikes.

This simple reality means that until we find a vaccine, we will not defeat COVID-19. We’ll be facing waves of tighter and looser restrictions going forward.

The most incredibly optimistic timeline for finding a vaccine and testing whether it’s effective is by the summer of 2021. This presumes our first available vaccine passes all the trials on safety and effectiveness, which is highly unlikely, given the rushed nature of work on vaccines to address COVID-19. Still, let’s assume we hit the jackpot. Then, it will take 6-12 months to produce enough of it to vaccine at least the first responders and the more vulnerable people, those over 60 and those under 60 with underlying health conditions. So in the most optimistic timeline, we’re at early 2022 for mostly dealing with COVID-19.

 of course, you should never assume that you’ll hit the jackpot in dealing with reality. In a more moderate scenario, it might be as long as 2025 until we find the right vaccine and make enough of it. In a pessimistic timeline, it might be 2030 or longer.

And even if we’re wonderfully lucky and it’s by 2022 or 2023, do you think that our lives will ever be the same if we face waves of looser and tighter restrictions until then? Not even close. We’re never going back to January 2020, as our social norms, habits, and perspectives will change drastically. And that’s not even considering the coronavirus recession, which will be huge.  

To shift your thinking, you need to accept this major disruption, and prepare to adapt to our new world, whether as individuals or organizations.


4) What steps can we take to protect our relationships in the context of social distancing?

 First, consider your immediate connections with members of the household. If you have a romantic partner in your household, you’ll have to figure out how to interact in a healthy manner given that you’re together 24/7. You’ll likely get into each other’s spaces and on each other’s nerves. It’s much wiser to anticipate and work out these problems in advance than have them blow up down the road.

The same principle applies to other members of your family. If you have older children who moved home after university closed, or younger children who aren’t going to school after it closed, you’ll need to figure out how to deal with them being cooped up inside.

 Second, what about your connection to those who you care about who aren’t part of your household?

Your romantic partner might not be part of your household. Depending on how vulnerable to COVID-19 you and other members of your household might be, you might choose to take the risk of physical intimacy with your romantic partner, but you have to make this decision consciously rather than casually. Or you might choose to have a social-distance relationship, meeting at a distance of 10 feet or by videoconference.

 The same goes for your friends. You can’t have a beer with them or meet for lunch in person, at least closer than 10 feet. You’ll need to figure out effective ways of interacting with them virtually during this difficult time of the next several years.

What about your family members who aren’t in your household? You’ll need to develop virtual interactions with them as well. Older family members or those with underlying health conditions are a particular concern. If you’re one of the many people in their 30s, 40s, or 50s supporting an older family member who is living independently but requires occasional help, you’re going to face particular challenges with protecting them from the possibility of you infecting them with COVID-19. Even if they don’t require in-person help from you, many will have difficulty adapting to virtual interaction and will struggle to cope.It may prove especially difficult if they get sick. I personally really struggled when my dad, who is 79 and lives in the COVID-19 hotspot of New York City, got sick with what was very likely COVID-19 in early April. I live in Columbus, Ohio, and in a different situation, would have hopped on a plane to help my mom take care of him. But of course, doing so wasn’t feasible in the middle of the early stages of the pandemic. I was left to wonder and worry as he suffered with worsening flu-like symptoms, including the difficulty breathing that is particularly associated with COVID-19. He recovered eventually, very fortunately, but it’s something that you need to be prepared to deal with for older relatives in your life.You’ll also want to think about how you’ll revise your community activities: faith-based groups, clubs, nonprofit activism, and so on. For instance, you should definitely avoid church services for now, but fortunately many churches offer video worship services, and that will have to do. You can take the lead in your club on moving to videoconference meetings. You will have to figure out how to replace your in-person volunteering, perhaps with virtual volunteering or with donations.


5) How can businesses and other organizations most effectively adapt their internal business model to the pandemic?

While the vast majority of companies and other organizations have already switched to virtual work to some extent, you have to make virtual work the default for the next several years for as many employees as physically possible. Even during looser periods, avoid in-person staff meetings: about half of all those infected with COVID-19 don’t have any significant symptoms and don’t know they’re sick, and many companies had COVID-19 sweep through employees ranks due to such meetings. Having made the switch long-term, you have to address the specific challenges associated with shifting from in-office to virtual teams. Immediately after the rapid onset of the pandemic, everyone fell into emergency mode, which prevented a lot of problems typically associated with this change. However, your staff can only function in emergency mode for so long, before coming to realize they’re in a new normal, and adjusting to the long haul. You’ll have to deal with several important issues:

  1.     Motivation and engagement
  2.     Effective communication
  3.     Noticing and solving problems and conflicts
  4.     Cultivating trust
  5.     Security
  6.     Accountability   


6) How can we turn the pandemic into an opportunity, not simply a threat?

For individuals, if you’re not currently in a job that allows work from home, and aren’t working in a critically important area for addressing the pandemic such as healthcare, start investing in a career transition to one that permits virtual service delivery. The same applies if you’re working in a role or industry severely impacted by the pandemic, such as in-person entertainment, restaurants, airlines, and so on. For example, I make much of my money from public speaking and training. All my events were cancelled due to the pandemic. As a result, I quickly transitioned to virtual presentations. Some of my coaching clients had to make more major shifts, not simply changing their service delivery model but switching from one industry to another. Also, consider taking up home-based productive activities that help make your life better during the pandemic, such as home improvements, indoor or outdoor gardening, cooking, and so on. You can also work on mastering new skills or further developing existing ones. Being at home offers a great opportunity to learn an instrument, pick up coding skills, or try to make a viral Youtube video.

For organizations, by taking all of the steps of adapting to the pandemic I described earlier, you will have a major competitive advantage. The large majority of your competitors will be falling for the planning fallacy, the normalcy bias, and other oh-so-tempting dangerous judgment errors. As a result, they’ll waste their time, money, and other resources on unrealistic plans, dreams, and hopes.

That’s the time to pounce. You’ll work right now to adapt your organization to the pandemic and make a clear long-term plan preparing for a realistic pessimistic scenario. Then, at the right time, be ready to use the consequences of your competitive advantage to seize market share from your competitors who are inadequately prepared for the reality of COVID-19. Research their clients, and decide who will be your first targets, based on which ones you think your competitors will start failing first. Approach them early offering to be a backup just in case things go south with your competitor. Some will want to start a conversation. Others will at least keep you in mind for the future.

Besides market share, prepare to seize the resources of your competitors. Some will be hobbled, while others go bankrupt. Be ready to hire highly-qualified employees who will be let go by those companies. Anticipate buying the material resources of organizations undergoing a fire sale. You’ll need a combination of cash and strategic planning to enable you to do so effectively.



7) How should we plan for the long-term duration of the pandemic?

 Don’t simply make a static plan, assuming it will come true. Instead, plan for a variety of possible futures, and invest resources accordingly.

Your specific approach to planning should depending on whether you are doing so as an individual or an organization, and how many different people can help create plans. At the very simples and most basic level, for an individual or small business, you should plan for at least three possible futures.

First, plan for an optimistic future, such as the government in your region handling COVID-19 competently to balance effectively health and economic concerns, and an effective vaccine being found and widely used by the end of 2022.

Then, plan for a moderate scenario. For example, say the government in your area does only a moderately competent job, resulting in 10% less economic activity and 10% more deaths than would be the case with the most effective balance. Also, a vaccine is not found and made widely available until the start of 2025. 

Then, prepare for a pessimistic scenario. Say the government in your area does a bad job, resulting in 30% less economic activity and 30% more deaths than would be the case with the most effective balance. Also, a vaccine is not found and made widely available until the start of 2030.



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