Battling COVID From a Numbers Perspective

Battling COVID From a Numbers Perspective 1572 664 Kevin Viner

It’s an age-old math problem that seems counterintuitive: Would you rather be given $1,000,000 right now, or one penny that doubled each day for 30 days? The latter solution would net you over $5,000,000, even though you would only be at just over $600k on Day 27. Let’s look at this from another angle. Imagine that there is a single lily pad in a pond, and it doubles in size every day until it covers the pond on Day 30. On which day did it cover only half of the pond? It’s tempting to say Day 15, or the halfway point. But that would be thinking linearly.

The correct answer is Day 29. By Day 31, it would cover the equivalent of 2 ponds. By Day 32, 4 ponds. And so on and so forth. It’s the same math that makes investments difficult for many, and makes it difficult to contemplate how a pandemic can get out of control so quickly. Things that seem benign early on can quickly spiral out of control to a point of no return.

And therein lies a huge problem. Understanding the mathematics of a pandemic requires an understanding of both exponential grown and conditional probability. That’s why we have so many articles written to explain the mathematics behind COVID-19. I was a mathematics major in college, and much of it is counterintuitive to me!

Because we have a hard time contemplating the future effects, we prioritize the present over the future. We believe that wearing masks “doesn’t matter,” we ignore the advice of top doctors who teach us that greater social distancing could curb this virus in 13 weeks (source:, and we create a holding pattern that is making things much worse than they need to be.

Add to this the concept of confirmation bias, which I wrote about extensively in an earlier blog post ( We attribute more validity to opinions that match our own ideology instead of trying to stick with facts. In other words, we substitute opinions for facts. So when we hear that masks don’t matter, that the situation isn’t really as bad as people think it is, and that it is going to “disappear on its own,” we ignore the science that shows us that it simply isn’t so.

In a world that seems to be increasingly divided, now is a good time for us all to admit that we don’t really know it all. If we subscribe to one set of beliefs, we should constantly question them to see if what we believe is actually true, or something that we are simply subscribing to because it is easier for our brains to consider. Great companies don’t just assume they have the right answer. They bring in 3rd parties to question, to audit, and to innovate. And we should do the same in our personal lives. Innovation expert Greg Satell says “Don’t look for a great idea. Look for a good problem.” We find problems by asking questions. If we can all ask better questions, we will get closer to a real solution. And I believe that is a goal that we can all share in unity.

Selective Attention: How Does a Mentalist Do It?

Selective Attention: How Does a Mentalist Do It? 1572 664 Kevin Viner


Did you watch it? If not, don’t cheat yourself out of the experience. If you have, read on!

You may have seen this before, but if you haven’t, you probably didn’t notice the gorilla. What gorilla, you ask? Go back and watch the video again, this time ignoring the team in white passing the ball, and focusing solely on spotting the actor dressed up as a gorilla.

Why didn’t you notice it before? Our brain is incredible at tuning out distractions and focusing only on the information that it needs. We are like an FM radio that is capable of tuning into a specific frequency when we apply interest and focus. By the way, this is similar to what happens when we purchase a new car. Have you ever noticed that when you drive away in a new vehicle, they seem to become ubiquitous, seemingly out of thin air? It isn’t that there are more of the cars on the road, it’s just that we are more apt to notice them.

You can try an experiment yourself. Next time you are taking a walk (or even now in the office), go ahead and select any color to focus your attention on. If you scan the room, you’ll notice that these colors appear brighter and tend to “pop.” When you shift your mind to another color, you’ll find that the new objects of your attention take center stage.

This has major ramifications for us in our business and personal lives, especially since most of us are terrible at multitasking (despite the stories we tell ourselves). It means that when we focus on one thing, we are effectively tuning out the other data around us. This leads to errors when details are focused on at the expense of the overall project. The famous example of NASA failing to convert metric to statute measurements is a great example. We need to keep in mind that focusing intently with one part of our brain essentially dulls the messages from other regions, which means that we need to make sure that our work is checked by others who may have different focuses.

As a mentalist, I use the same principles of “misdirection” that magicians use. But misdirection is actually a bit of a misnomer. Asking people to divert their attention from something often has an equal and opposite effect. Like Newton’s 3rd law, when we push against our audiences, they will push back with equal force. If I ask you “not to think of a white polar bear,” the first image that pops into your mind is exactly that. So my job isn’t to direct you AWAY from something, but rather to direct you TO something that is more interesting. If I can get you to focus on something that is seemingly more interesting, I know that selective attention will automatically move your thoughts away from what I’m really doing.

Please leave your questions and comments below! Next month, I’ll be talking about cognitive tunnels, which are directly related to selective attention.