Why People Sometimes do Stupid Things

Julia Shaw

Julia Shaw is German/Canadian who received her PhD in Psychology from the University of British Columbia. Yea Julia – Go Thunderbirds!

Her concentration includes false memories.  Dr. Shaw’s research includes how some law enforcement interviewing “tactics” derived from psuedoscience may lead people to recalling crimes that did not occur.  She is a contributor to Scientific American and gives public lectures on psychology and memory. In 2016 she created a PBS Nova documentary, “Memory Hackers”.

Dr. Shaw recently published an article in Psychology Today, “Why Some People Are Still Not Staying and Home”, in response to people not adhering to public health recommendations to maintain social distancing. The article points to the seemingly irrational actions of some during the COVID-19 crises and others reaction to it.

It is a valuable read.

The observations and insights in Dr. Shaw’s article carry beyond the COVID-19 crises. The article explains what can happen among citizens in times of fear and uncertainty as people interpret the actions of others. If we accidentally trust a person who is ill, we are playing with death. Dr. Shaw writes that the brain innately errs on the side of caution as means to survive. In the context of a pandemic, caution assumes that people are dangerous and selfish.

We scratch our heads and have an opinion,  when we see people on the beaches in Florida ignoring the advice of scientists. Dr. Shaw points to Paul W. Andrew’s paper, in which he describes  one of many heuristics biases, the “fundamental attribution error” (FAE).

In these times of fear and uncertainty, people often do two things:

  1. Assume the worst in others
  2. Act irrationally

The discovery of heuristics biases, such as the fundamental attribution error, lends a lot more understanding to a host of mental shortcuts the brain takes. Some scientists posit these shortcuts evolved to save energy when the deliberate/effortful system of language, math and problem solving is activated. It is an energy hog.







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