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Checkmate: What a Game of Chess Can Reveal About the Pandemic | Op-Ed

Last week I was playing a game of chess. After 24 moves I had laid out a clever attack. The final step: advancing my knight in preparation for a hidden attack from my queen. Yet, right before I was able to execute my master plan… checkmate. Unbeknownst to me, my opponent maneuvered his bishop and queen into a cross-board checkmate. I had lost.

Why should anyone care about my chess game? Because it is emblematic of behaviour that most world leaders are guilty of – and that you may also be: plan continuation bias.

Chess is of little consequence in the real world, yet we find the real world littered with the same biases that cause us to fail in our personal lives. Our leaders often fail where the best chess players don’t

In short: When we decide to act upon a goal and new information becomes available, we should rethink, but often don’t. Rather than altering our course of action, our vision narrows and we double-down – often by referring to how those around us are behaving.

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Bias 1. Plan Continuation Bias:

NASA defines Plan Continuation Bias as the:

“Unconscious cognitive bias to continue with the original plan in spite of changing conditions.”

The Story of Captain Rugiati: Tim Harford gives the example of Captain Rugiati when explaining Plan Continution Bias in his podcast Cautionary Tales. In 1967, Captain Pastrengo Rugiati led the SS Torrey Canyon, an oil tanker the size of the Chrysler Building, into a reef off the coast of the United Kingdom

  • Rugiati ignored new information about weather and the reef, leading to a disaster.
  • This disaster spilled an estimated 25-36 million gallons of crude oil.

Rugiati had committed to his course – and this was his downfall.

Bias 2. The Bystander Effect:

Britannica describes the Bystander Effect as:

“The inhibiting influence of the presence of others on a person’s willingness to help someone in need.”

When there is a greater number of bystanders, you are less likely to act. This is another cognitive bias our global leaders are susceptible to.

Consider the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • In hindsight, world leaders did too little too late.
  • Even prior to reports of international deaths, epidemiologists warned of “pandemic-like” possibilities.
  • Some went as far as to claim that COVID-19 could infect +70% of the global population.
  • Even with a death rate of 1%, the virus could claim the lives of 50 million people.
  • These reports emerged as early as January 24th.

What did leaders do with this information?

  • They looked around to see how people or countries in similar situations were acting.
  • Rather than responding to expert opinions, most countries continued with business-as-usual.
  • This decision felt justified by similar states where people were doing the same.


  • Canada recorded its first case on February 20th with local restrictions, like the closing of public spaces and airport regulations, not coming into place until later.

On an individual level, it was only once I’d heard supermarkets were running out of toilet paper that I took the threat of the virus seriously. I’m human, I’m a social animal who takes their cues from the behaviour of others. I found states acted in a similar manner.

Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America all waited and then scrambled for health equipment, just like how I scrambled for toilet paper.

States should have taken precautionary actions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 much earlier.

  • In my game of chess, I should have stepped back to survey the threat of a checkmate.
  • Governments around the world – provided with expert opinion – should have shifted by early February.

There is an acute weakness in our social system. It is not the incapacity of bureaucratic machinery. It is the tendency of a society to be unaware of our most fundamental limitations: that of ourselves.

The bottom line: It is easy to use these lessons to blame elected officials or, as the Trump Administration prefers: China. But I would argue, the biggest lesson from COVID-19 should be one of self-reflection.

  • If we are more aware of our tendencies we can behave proactively.
  • We can look ahead, rather than being anchored in position (although Captain Rugiati might have preferred that).
  • Liberated, we might see COVID-19 as a warning for something else, rather than seeing SARS as the warning for COVID-19.

We might learn from this. We might learn that governments can be bold. They might approach challenges where the consequences are difficult to discern and ambiguous but nonetheless pressing, with new audacity. They might take action on issues like climate change. I may win the next chess game I play.

We can also engage our cognitive limitations as individuals. If we do so, we may better manage the biggest risk in our lives: the unforeseeable and unavoidable future.