How recency bias can keep us locked in the present...and forget about tomorrow.

    Hearing that Fleetwoord Mac classic brought to mind a conversation I had not long ago. The concept of “recency bias” came up, and that struck me as an especially appropriate topic for a post during these challenging times.

    Essentially, recency bias is the understandable tendency to remember recent events more clearly than more distant ones — and thus give recent events undue weight in determining our outlook for the future.

    Nurses and other front-line health care providers have worked steadfastly and selflessly throughout this pandemic, as have the countless other professional and support workers who continue to care for the non-COVID-19 patients who enter our hospitals and emergency departments.

    Whichever part of the care continuum you work in, it’s important to recognize when your mind is so focused on the day-to-day imperatives of patient care that it feels like this is how your work life has always been and always will be. That’s recency bias, and it can make all the positives in your past and your optimism for the future fade in comparison what you see happening in your current daily life.

    As you become aware that your mind is playing that trick on you, set aside some quiet time and find a place to reflect on the positives that are happening all around you and foretell a new and different, but hopeful, future.

    That future has already begun. You’re probably aware of the worldwide gestures of appreciation for nurses, doctors, police officers, mail carriers, grocery workers, delivery people, and so many others. Every evening people across the globe gather on balconies to literally howl in gratitude for your hard work and sacrifice. Office skyscrapers show solidarity with pink-lighted windows arranged in a heart shape. And individual citizens do the same with pink sticky notes in their front windows.

    People are nicer to each other, more considerate and mindful of the simple needs of others. They’re taking renewed pleasure in sharing, leaving fresh-baked cookies on neighbors’ doorsteps, doing errands for elderly or at-risk friends, and organizing Zoom coffee parties and happy hours.

    In the temporary absence of hugs from loved ones, we’re smiling at strangers more often — eyes crinkling above our homemade masks — and cheerfully walking wide circles around each other as we exercise outdoors, with friendly waves as we pass.

    Teachers are finding innovative ways to educate their students online and posting their classes on YouTube so they’re available everywhere. Exercise classes for every age and interest have blossomed on Zoom.

    The sky is bluer and the air more breathable because we’re driving less. We’re less wasteful of products and services we once took for granted.

    We create small triumphs from commonplace events — like scoring a big roll of paper towels or some genuine hand sanitizer.

    And every day we hear encouraging news about potential COVID-19 tests and treatments in development.

    Above all, nurses are doing what they have always done in historical crises like the 1918 flu and ebola: giving their all to care for people in deep distress. As one nurse observed, “The pandemic has made me remember why nursing is my calling.”

    The final chorus of the Fleetwood Mac song cautions, “don’t look back...don’t look back.” So put recency bias behind you, too. What’s happening right now won’t last forever. Look ahead to a brighter future. That future will surely be different from what we might have imagined, but perhaps it will be better in many ways we can’t fully envision now.

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