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’s a looming present threat. Humans are wired to pay attention to threats</a>, and so this story captures our attention in a way that a distant threat like climate change does not</a>.
Second, there’s 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. The uncertainty that creates for people increases our attention to it.
Third, people have little control over the spread of the virus — even if we wash our hands, avoid touching our faces and practice social distancing. 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 the attempts to control the spread of the virus are fundamentally about prevention. That means that if they’re successful, some people will not get sick. But since we do not get to run the control condition in which those measures weren’t taken, it’s hard to know which actions and programs are having an impact on creating the absence of the disease.
The threat, uncertainty and anxiety lead us to make shortsighted 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 actions that will make them feel more in control. Early on, this took the form of buying hand sanitizer and rubbing alcohol, which makes some sense. But once those stocks dwindled, there was an additional run on toilet paper, paper towels and bottled water — purchases that make less sense (and certainly weren’t being advised by experts).
Some people are making quick decisions about finances as well. With the key stock market indexes down roughly 20%, many people are tempted to sell their stocks (and clearly many have). 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 is to slow down. By slowing down, you can use deliberative reasoning based on data 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.
In times of (relatively) slow-developing existential crises like a pandemic, it’s best not to act on gut feelings. Quick actions may reduce some of your anxiety in the short run, but they’re likely to create more problems than they solve.
Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of “Bring Your Brain to Work.”