The Danger of Recency Bias

The Danger of Recency Bias

My wife and I have been watching “The Last Dance” a 10 part documentary about the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan. Millions have been tuning in to watch and it seems like a number of younger folks who did not grow up with MJ and who view Lebron James as the GOAT are being woken up to the greatness of Jordan, realizing that maybe, just maybe, they have some recency bias. Recency bias is when we are most aware of that which has happened in recent memory to the effect that our perspective is distorted and we give an outsized role to our recent circumstances rather than evaluating that which is recent in the context of the larger whole of time and history

We are living through a global pandemic. Many have been touched by the tragedy and heartbreak of loved ones contracting the virus and even dying. We are distancing ourselves from others, wearing masks, disinfecting hands, and so forth. And sadly the supposed prevention of the spread of this virus may be more damaging in the long run then the virus itself as loneliness and isolation provoke anxiety, mental illness, and substance abuse. Businesses are collapsing, livelihoods are being stripped away and economic recession appears to be inevitable 

This truly is a dark and difficult season. But I would suggest we should be careful about the danger of recency bias and failing to understand that while this is a very difficult season, our suffering is not unique to us. Each generation throughout human history has faced serious dilemmas and we can have hope that we will make it through our current challenges and also find joy and thriving in this season.

C.S. Lewis, in his 1948 essay entitled “On Living in an Atomic Age,” addresses the very human tendency to be so fixated on the difficulties of the moment that we fail to pull ourselves together and persevere with a realistic and optimistic perspective: 

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

— “On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

I am in no way seeking to minimize the sad and difficult realities of this season but I would agree with C.S. Lewis who would say that we should spend this season of crisis doing sensible and human things, not letting our minds be dominated in such a way that we miss the opportunities in front of us to live our lives, enjoying the many good gifts sprinkled throughout this season, and pursuing faithfulness to God. It would not be wise for us to be huddled together like frightened sheep consumed with worry about Covid-19.

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

The former days carry there own anxieties and sorrows, as do the present and we can expect the same in the future. These are the days of sadness before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ but the good news for all who are in Christ is that he is coming to renew all things and wipe away every tear. So we persevere, looking forward to that great and blessed hope in this season and every season.

Even if you want to take a foolish position and you don’t agree that Michael Jordan is the GOAT, let us be wise in these days as we thank God for his goodness and receive his grace to persevere realistically and joyfully.