Mandates Solve the Problem of Magical Thinking

Consider, for a moment, why so many Americans are vaccine-hesitant or resistant. My colleague Tom Wood co-authored a book documenting the problem of magical thinking. Porter & Wood examined a wide variety of conspiratorial and anti-science beliefs. They found that a significant number of people form beliefs based on intuition and emotion.

These people were not unintelligent or uneducated, but they simply leaned on their own intuitions and lived experiences to form a basis for their beliefs (e.g. “I got a flu shot once and got sick, therefore, flu shots are useless.”)

Importantly, Porter and Wood found that people who used intuition more could not be reasoned with. In fact, when presented with factual arguments against their beliefs they often became angry. They could not defend their views beyond, “Well, this is the way I feel,” because that was the entirety of their basis of belief. Faced with an inability to argue they often became angry and viewed attempts at correction as a personal attack.

For managers, magical thinking is a major problem because it impedes change and adaptation. Many people may be reluctant to adapt to new practices because they are used to doing things a certain way and trust that experience more than data. Of course, many managers may also fall victim to magical thinking for the exact same reason.

The alternative to magical thinking is to rely on science and data in decision making. Unfortunately, many Americans lack basic scientific and data literacy. People often reject information, even when it reflects a scientific consensus, that runs counter to their beliefs.

Ignoring science and data can lead to a crisis. Unfortunately, because magical thinkers are immune to persuasion, the only way to reach them may be through drastic action…and right now,  as an example, there is a cause for drastic action, beyond the action businesses would take in calmer times.

The delta variant of COVID-19 is ravaging large parts of the country where vaccine rates remain low and hospital systems are, again, being overwhelmed. Some areas are doing well, but many lag well behind on vaccination.

Vaccine hesitancy bears all the hallmarks of magical thinking. It is a combination of lack of trust in institutions, lack of urgency (e.g. “I’m not even sick, why do I need a vaccine?”) and general aversion to medical appointments. Most research indicates that the only way to overcome such hesitancy is an increase in perceived threat of disease.

Previous experience shows that these mandates are an effective means of overcoming vaccine hesitancy. Indeed, mandates may be the only way to overcome magical thinking. Now is an opportunity for  leaders private businesses to step in and take action quickly. Businesses like Disney, Wal-Mart, United Airlines, and some colleges and universities have already started to mandate vaccinations for all employees (yes, this is legal.)  These private actions have enormous potential. Half of vaccine-hesitant Americans have said they would get vaccinated if faced with an employer mandate. Some employers have even sweetened the deal by providing time off to get vaccinated, an off day to deal with any potential side effects, or even bonuses for vaccinations.

It should be worth noting that these companies may not be operating out of purely altruistic motives. Yes, widespread vaccination is good for the public and epidemics are bad for business. In the more immediate sense, widespread vaccination is good for business. can help prevent workplace outbreaks, reduce employee sick days, and provide a competitive advantage. Wouldn’t you rather eat or shop at a business where you know every employee is vaccinated? And, of course, many businesses are still facing labor shortages. In a competitive labor market, a business with vaccine mandates guarantees a safer workplace, making it a more attractive spot for workers.

As a leader, have you experienced other instances of magical thinking? Sound off in the comments.

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.