Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

President Donald Trump pretends to take a Covid-19 test while holding a swab during his visit of the Puritan Medical Products facility in Guilford, Maine on June 5, 2020. The facility said after Trump's visit it would have to discard tests that were made during the president's visit because he did not wear a face mask. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

President Donald Trump pretends to take a Covid-19 test while holding a swab during his visit of the Puritan Medical Products facility in Guilford, Maine on June 5, 2020. The facility said after Trump's visit it would have to discard tests that were made during the president's visit because he did not wear a face mask. (Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

"Back to Normal" Thinking and Why Trump's Anti-Mask Stance Has Been So Deadly

Understanding why some people continue to disregard the best advice of public health officials, means understanding why how dangerous the president's behavior has become.

Gleb Tsipursky

As the vast majority of companies rush to reopen and people rush back to public life, they’re falling into the trap of “getting back to normal.”  They’re not realizing we’re heading into a period of waves of restrictions once again, due to many states reopening too soon.

Indeed, some of the states to open early onward have already reimposed some restrictions. This shows that as I predicted in a newspaper editorial way back at the start of the pandemic on March 10, 2020, we will greatly underestimate the pandemic and need to prepare to face rolling waves of restrictions and shutdowns until a vaccine. To avoid the trap of normalcy, we need to understand the parallels between what’s going on now, and what happened at the start of the pandemic.

Very many prominent business and political leaders downplayed the pandemic in its early stages. As a result, most business owners and plenty of ordinary citizens initially perceived the pandemic as little worse than the common cold.

This initial impression anchored their opinions toward minimizing the threat posed by COVID-19. In neuroscience and behavioral economics research, we call such initial impressions an “anchor.” Our minds tend to fall into a dangerous judgment error called the anchoring bias or focalism, where we give too much credit to the initial piece of information we received on a topic and perceive the rest of the information through the filter of that initial impression.

Yes, first impressions really matter, too much for our own good! That means as new information became available about the danger of COVID-19, people stuck to their initial impressions. They feel very reluctant to change their minds based on new evidence. Nowhere is this more evidence than in guidance on wearing masks.

Initially, the CDC indicated that there’s no need to wear masks to protect yourself or others from COVID-19. Over time, as research evidence accumulated on the benefits of wearing masks, the CDC changed its guidelines, highlighting the importance of masking in public.

That’s how science works: changing evidence results in changing guidelines. But that’s not how our brains work, at least for those without training in critical evaluation of evidence.

The result? Many disregarded the new guidance, especially if those they consider authority figures did not reinforce it. Due to a mental blindspot called emotional contagion, we tend to adopt the perspectives of those we see as authority figures. With their guidance, we can overcome initial anchoring; without it, we will stick to our initial perspective. 

Just as dangerous is another dangerous judgment error that cognitive neuroscientists call the normalcy bias. This mental blindspot refers to the fact that our gut reactions drive us to feel that the future, at least in the short and medium term of the next couple of years, will function in roughly the same way as the past: normally. As a result, we tend to vastly underestimate both the possibility and impact of a disaster striking us. Moreover, we will rush to get back to normal even when we should be preparing for the aftershocks or continuation of the disaster.

The normalcy bias, anchoring bias, and emotional contagion are three of over one hundred mental blindspots that cognitive neuroscientists and behavioral economists like myself call cognitive biases. Fortunately, recent research by myself and other scholars has shown us how we can effectively defeat such dangerous judgment errors.

First you need to understand and evaluate where you yourself and your organization have fallen into each of these biases, and evaluate the damage caused by doing so. Then, you need to consider realistically the long-term outcomes and plan for a realistic scenario that addresses the likelihood of major disruptions.

Prepare to deal with waves of restrictions and loosenings for the long haul, especially as it’s likely that the coronavirus will get worse in the Fall, as weather gets colder. Remember, even if you made some bad decisions in the past, you always have the opportunity to make better decisions going forward to survive and thrive through the pandemic.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky

Gleb Tsipursky

An internationally-renowned risk management expert who highlighted the threat of the pandemic in its early stages, Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a behavioral scientist, CEO of the consulting and training firm Disaster Avoidance Experts, and best-selling author of Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Bombshell': Israeli Spyware Used to Hack iPhones of US State Department Officials

Calling the Israel-based spyware maker NSO Group an "in-plain-sight national security threat," one expert warned that "a multi-agency investigation is immediately needed."

Jessica Corbett ·


US Progressive Caucus Hails Honduran Election as Chance for 'New Chapter' in Relations

"We encourage the Biden administration to use this opportunity to make a clean break with previous presidential administrations, which worked to ensure that the 2009 coup d'état succeeded."

Brett Wilkins ·


'The Facts of This Case Are So Egregious': Parents of Michigan School Shooter Charged in Killings

"There were a lot of things that could have been so simple to prevent," the Oakland County prosecutor said of the mother and father now being sought by law enforcement.

Kenny Stancil ·


Health Minister Says 'Highly Transmissible' Omicron Hitting Young Children Hard in South Africa

In South Africa's worst-affected province, children under the age of five now make up the second-largest group being admitted to hospitals.

Julia Conley ·


Groups Tell UN Food Agency to Ditch 'Toxic Alliance' With Pesticide Association

"This partnership with CropLife is in direct conflict with FAO's mandate as a U.N. institution to fulfill human rights to health, adequate food, clean water and environment, and safe working conditions."

Kenny Stancil ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo