It’s a fact: most decisions are based on bias.
A person will be usually inclined to believe something that has a positive emotional effect— that makes him feel good, or supports his pre-conceived beliefs— even if there is strong evidence to the contrary. Likewise, a person may be reluctant to accept hard facts that are unpleasant, or may cause him mental suffering. Neuroscientists call this trait emotional bias. And it results in our inability to think straight and make good decisions.
Sure. Many of us would like to think otherwise—that we’re exceptions to the rule, that our decisions are rooted in logic rather than emotion. But the truth is, what we’re typically doing is justifying our emotional decisions, with logical afterthought. In other words, we make an emotional decision then use whatever logic we can dredge up to back up that decision.
Emotional bias is a part of the human condition, and it becomes nearly intractable in times of extreme stress and in the face of monumental disasters— like the one we’re witnessing in Haiti.
The problem with emotionally biased decisions is they cause us to do things that are exactly opposite of what we should be doing—often exacerbating the problem rather than solving it.
In the days following the earthquake, those involved in relief efforts – including Brazilian peacekeepers and Haitian government officials, spent way too much time dealing with emotionally driven issues rather than with logical ones.
The emotional impact of seeing bodies littering the streets and stacked high like cordwood can be devastatingly traumatizing. But contrary to what one might believe, the bodies of the dead pose no appreciable health risk to the living. Yet in situations like these, emotions rule decisions. The result? Precious resources and manpower that should be used in saving lives, tend instead, to be diverted to tending to the dead. And such is the reality in Haiti.
Despite lessons learned from previous humanitarian disasters, and in direct opposition to advice given by the World Health Organization and other public health experts— who urged relief teams to focus on saving lives and on providing food, clean water, shelter, sanitary toilet facilities and medical assistance— relief workers on the ground instinctively and predictably yielded to human emotion and diverted a precious percentage of their limited resources and manpower to burying the dead. According to Carol Joseph, a government minister, the authorities have already buried 70,000 bodies in mass graves, and plan on continuing their efforts.
The real public health dangers in Haiti, at this time, are not the mounting bodies. The real risks come from cholera, malaria, dengue fever, hepatitis, dysentery, and even from common diarrhea (the second most common cause of infant deaths worldwide), as well as respiratory infections exacerbated by overcrowding.
So far, epidemiological surveillance along the border with the Dominican Republic, where thousands of people have fled, has not yet shown an increase in infectious disease, but without some straightforward CounterThinking and a little logical intervention, that’s sure to change.
To save the lives of survivors, rescue workers need to concentrate their actions and resources on the treatment of trauma, and expand access to surgical care, safe water, antibiotics to treat infections, and simple painkillers to ease the suffering of the injured. And then they have to try to circumvent future problems by giving mass immunizations for infections such as tetanus.
CounterThink often demands doing the unthinkable. In this case, the unthinkable would be to ignore the growing mountains of human corpses and move on as if they weren’t there. Here, CounterThink, means going against one’s immediate gut reaction; taking urgent, logical and simple steps to help the living, not tend to the dead—as distasteful, and traumatic, and barbaric as that may seem. That’s exactly what should happen, but history tells us, that’s exactly what will not.
And more will die so others might feel good.