The news about the spread of COVID-19 is changing fast — and people are trying to make decisions about everything from whether to cancel vacations to how to best protect themselves and their communities.
There are several psychological reasons why you may find decision-making difficult right now.
First, there is a looming present threat. The disease is real. Around the world, people are dying from it and it is spreading rapidly enough that there is new news every day. Humans are wired to pay attention to threats, and so this story captures our attention in a way that a distant threat like climate change does not.
Second, there is a lot of uncertainty about the spread of the virus — how many people have it, how quickly it’s moving through communities, how many people will ultimately get it. When it comes to future projections, we’re good at understanding linear trends. We are bad at understanding trends that involve an accelerated growth like an exponential function. At the front end of a bloom in a virus, there will be few cases, but they can grow rapidly. The uncertainty that creates for people increases our attention to it.
Third, people have very little control over the spread of the virus. We can engage in actions like washing our hands, avoiding touching our faces, and practicing social distancing, but there are many aspects of the situation that are out of our control. People don’t like to be in situations in which they have no agency; it creates additional anxiety as well as a desire to do something to reassert control.
Finally, all of the attempts to control the spread of the virus are fundamentally about prevention. That means that if they are successful, some people will not get sick. Unfortunately, we do not get to run the control condition in which those measures weren’t taken. As a result, it is hard to know which actions and programs are having an impact on creating the absence of the disease.
All four of these factors are affecting our behavior and the decisions we make. The threat, uncertainty, and anxiety lead us to make short-sighted decisions.
For example, the uncertainty makes us crave more information so many people are spending a lot of time looking for news updates relating to the virus and its spread. It’s good to be informed but we know that the consumption of negative news causes stress and distraction.
Similarly, the lack of agency causes people to seek out actions that will make them feel more in control. Early on, this took the form of buying hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol. These purchases make some sense, as they can be used to disinfect people and surfaces that might lead to the spread of the virus. But once those stocks dwindled, people still felt like they needed to assert some control, so there was an additional run on toilet paper, paper towels, and bottled water — purchases that make somewhat less sense (and certainly weren’t being advised by experts). Still these purchases can temporarily ease some people’s anxiety by making them feel like they have done something.
Some people, in the face of anxiety, are making quick decisions about finances as well. With the key stock market indices down roughly 20% in the first few weeks of March, many people are tempted to sell their stocks (and clearly many have). But this is taking a paper loss in the present that is likely to come back in the future (given the way stock markets have acted in the past). People want to take action quickly — even when inaction might be more prudent.
So how do you make good decisions in the face of these psychological factors? The best way to resist the siren call of action is to slow down. Panic makes people want to act right now to avoid a threat, but most of the actions you are likely to take will not be prudent in the face of a potential pandemic.
By slowing down, you can use deliberative reasoning with data — what Keith Stanovich and Richard West called System 2 in their dual-systems approach to the mind — to influence your conclusions. There is a lot of information out there right now about the virus and how to react. Take the time to read and digest it before making important personal and business decisions. There are many actions people should take over the next several weeks and months, but the decision to act should be based on deliberation, sober reflection on data, and discussion with experts — not in reaction to a headline or a tweet.
The same thing holds true for situations that require inaction, when it’s better to hold steady and wait for more data. Stanovich and West’s System 1 is a fast and intuitive reasoning system that responds to your current motivational state. Those fast judgments are generally biased toward action so you need to slow down to be sure that quick reactions are actually warranted.
All of which is to say that in times of (relatively) slow-developing existential crises like a pandemic, it is best to take your time when making decisions rather than acting on gut feelings. Those quick actions may reduce some of your anxiety in the short-run, but they are likely to create more problems than they solve.
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