Information about the distribution of COVID-19 is changing rapidly, and in these conditions, people are trying to make a variety of decisions – from “Should I go on vacation?
First, a threat loomed over us. This disease is not joking. All over the world, people are dying from her. The infection spreads so fast that news about it is different every day. Our brains are designed so that we pay special attention to threats, so the epidemic does not go out of our heads, in contrast to more distant dangers like climate change.
Secondly, the situation with the spread of the virus is very uncertain. How many are already infected? Is the infection spreading rapidly across communities? How many people get sick in the end? When it comes to forecasts, we well understand linear trends. Trends due to accelerating growth, as exponentially, we do not understand well. At first, the virus infects a few, but the number of cases can grow rapidly. The uncertainty we are facing makes us pay more attention to the coronavirus.
Thirdly, people can influence the spread of the virus very slightly. We can make it a rule to wash our hands and not touch our face, we can self-insulate during the epidemic, but many aspects of the situation are not subject to it. Nobody likes to be in situations that are not controlled by a person. This creates additional anxiety, and also causes a desire to do something to regain control of what is happening.
And finally, fourthly, all attempts to restrain the spread of the virus mainly relate to the prevention of its transmission from person to person. That is, if these measures are successfully taken, a certain number of people will not get sick. Unfortunately, we cannot create a control group in which these measures would not be taken. As a result, it is difficult to understand what actions and programs contribute to ending the epidemic.
All four of these factors influence our behavior and our decisions. Threat, uncertainty and anxiety push us to short-sighted decisions.
For example, uncertainty makes us thirst for new information about the virus and its spread, and many seek it out for a long time. Awareness is good, but we know that negative news causes stress and confusion.
Similarly, the inability to influence the situation encourages people to strive for actions that give a sense of control over what is happening. At first it took the form of buying up antiseptics for the hands. These actions made sense, since purchased can be used to disinfect skin and surfaces. But when the stocks of these goods were exhausted, people still needed to control at least something, so toilet paper, paper towels and bottled water disappeared from the shelves. There is less sense in buying these goods – and experts certainly did not advise stocking them up. But nevertheless, these purchases temporarily alleviated the anxiety of some people, causing them to feel that they had done something.
Some of us, in conditions of anxiety, make hasty decisions regarding finances. In the first weeks of March, key stock indexes fell by about 20%, and many are drawn to sell their shares (obviously, a lot of people did so). But this is the right way to unrealized losses that may affect the future (given the previous behavior of stock markets). People want to act quickly, even if inaction is more appropriate.
So what can we do to make the right decisions in spite of these psychological factors? The best way to resist an inner voice calling for immediate action is to slow down. Panic makes people want to do something right now to avoid the threat, but most of the measures you can take are not practical during a pandemic.
Slowed down, you can carefully analyze the data, that is, draw conclusions influenced by what Keith Stanovich and Richard West called “System 2” in their two-system approach to thinking (a similar classification of thinking is also proposed by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman – approx. Ed.). We already have a lot of information about the virus and how to respond to it. Take the time to familiarize yourself with it and consider it before making important personal and commercial decisions. In the next few weeks or months, we will have to do a lot, but all decisions should be made by carefully weighing and soberly comprehending the data obtained and discussing them with experts. Your actions should not be a reaction to a headline or tweet.
This is true for situations that require inaction, when it is better not to fuss and wait for new information. Stanovich and West called System 1 a mechanism for quick decision-making based on intuition, which responds to your current state that prompts you to act. These quick decisions are characterized by an unjustified tendency in favor of action, so we need to slow down so that our quick reactions are truly justified.
It follows from the foregoing that in times of (relatively) slowly developing deadly crises such as a pandemic, it is better to devote more time to weighing your decisions, rather than being guided by instinct. Intuitive prompt actions can calm your anxiety for a while, but they usually create more problems than they solve.