As strict stay-at-home orders are lifted, people face a number of decisions. Mundane logistical questions — Should I go get my hair cut? When can I picnic with friends? What should I wear to the hardware store? — during the COVID-19 pandemic carry implications for personal and public health, in some cases life-or-death ones.
When multiplied through the population, seemingly small decisions can either dramatically slow or accelerate this pandemic. So we might like to think that our behavioral choices are based purely on the best information we have. But that isn't the case, experts say. In fact, we are all susceptible to biases that push and pull our brains in invisible ways.
This happens in part because of overconfidence in our ability to know why we make the choices we do. "There's a powerful belief in the value of introspection, which much of social psychology and psychological science has shown is a mistake," says psychologist Jennifer Lerner of the Harvard Kennedy School. "We are not good at understanding what our brains are doing."
Research by Lerner and others can help us better understand how our decision-making processes are affected in these unprecedented times — and perhaps how we can inoculate ourselves and others against unwise decisions.
Here are five factors that can sway how we choose to behave during the pandemic:
Bias of the here and now
In many ways, we are creatures of the present. "We tend to make decisions based on the information that is most resonant, closest at hand, most recent," says Nicholas King, a biomedical ethicist at McGill University in Montreal. So, if you are lucky enough to not know anyone sickened with COVID-19, you might not take rigorous precautions.
It's easier, King says, to look outside and see what is going on around you than to dive into epidemiological models and data-based projections.
Another part of preference for the present is evaluating our behavior on what we perceive as the "status quo" — even if it is radically different from what we were used to just months ago, King says.
This tendency can backfire, however, because we also have a bias toward action.
It's not unlike feeling sick and going to the doctor. Often the best course of action is "watchful waiting." To a lot of people, though, that is the hardest pill to swallow. Instead of being the sound, evidence-based choice, watchful waiting feels like, "we should be doing something, but instead we're doing nothing," King says.
Colored by emotions
Research shows that even the most minor of choices can be colored by our mood.
"Emotions have a profound effect on the process with which people make decisions," says Lerner, who coauthored an article about emotion and decision-making in the 2015 Annual Review of Psychology.
For example, Lerner and colleagues have found that anger tends to lead to less thoughtful analysis. "Angry people don't question themselves," she says. "They don't say, 'Gosh, I wonder if I'm right about this. I'm not sure if I'm using the right information.'" And that can lead people to make less-than-ideal choices.
Perhaps more prevalent than anger these days is sadness, as people lose not just loved ones or their health but also income and freedom of movement. Unlike anger, though, "sadness actually makes you think more deeply" and can help to process information in a more robust, systematic way, Lerner says.
Lerner's work has also shown that sadness can lead to poor financial decisions. Experiments have found that study participants prompted into a sad mood were more willing to pay overly high prices to buy things immediately than those who were in a neutral mood. "So there's a real risk, when you're sad, of over-shopping and paying too much for things," Lerner notes. This is especially troubling during a recession spurred by a pandemic.
Fear has also been shown to be an influencer: Research done after 9/11 found that fear heightened people's perception of risk, and so, too, their intentions to take precautions.
Searching for certainty
Another prevailing force right now is extreme uncertainty, which, as King puts it, "sucks." This instability can lead people to seek narrow ranges of information in order to confirm their perspectives.
"Confirmation bias is a way of minimizing uncertainty: Because you're only choosing evidence that confirms your preexisting world view, you can maintain a certain confidence level of what you already believe," King says.
This, like anger, leads people to be less considerate of potentially wiser perspectives about the safety of large gatherings like religious services.
Adding to the trouble, this drive often perpetuates misguided certainty that can lead to similarly misguided behavioral choices. "In policy arenas and personal life — even in science — the person who declares things with certainty tends to garner more attention and a lot more trust than the person who expresses uncertainty," King says.
Which, he says, gets things exactly backward.
"I trust the person who honestly and transparently discusses the uncertainties involved … much more," King says. "Relying on false certainty leads to a lot of bad decisions."
We rarely make decisions in a vacuum — even if they seem entirely personal. And we are influenced by those around us more than we might think.
A virus or rumor can transmit through simple contact. But for a more complex social behavior, like wearing a mask to protect others, the dynamics are much more complicated, explains Damon Centola of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
In this case, social networks act more like prisms, as Centola described in the 2019 Annual Review of Sociology. These networks actually "shape how we view the information we're receiving, how responsive we are to the new behaviors we're exposed to, and whether or not we accept them," he says. "The idea is if people just have information, then they will make the rational choice. And that's just wrong."
As much as any recommendations from the CDC or the county health department, your peers affect the choices you make.
Centola gives the example of physical distancing. If you were the only one in your office to decide to not attend a meeting — or the only one of your friends to skip a dinner party, it might have had adverse professional or social effects. But if most of your colleagues (or friends) established the norm of not attending in-person gatherings, that decision becomes the default. The same might go for wearing masks in your neighborhood.
When healthy is easy
To understand how to help people make better decisions in this pandemic, scientists are looking to insights gained from previous work on pro-social health behaviors. Gretchen Chapman, who studies social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, has done decades of research in this field, such as on people's decisions to get vaccines.
"Trying to change people's beliefs and feelings about vaccination is not very effective — it's more effective to intervene on the behavior directly by making the behavior easy," she says. (This can be as simple as automatically scheduling flu shot appointments.)
Any way to make the desired behavior decision as frictionless as possible is key, Chapman says. If you want people to mostly avoid going to grocery stores, "grocery delivery should be really easy and accessible." Or if you're trying to ensure mask wearing, have disposable masks available for people before they enter a store.
What we can learn, how we can do better
A better understanding of how we make decisions can also help experts learn how to nudge us toward healthy behaviors.
Chapman and colleagues, for example, are studying how different messages — straight informational versus one that includes an estimate of how popular something is (how many Americans are wearing masks, for example) — change people's intended behavior. She expects that whom the messaging depicts will also influence the results: "If they learn that other people like them in their neighborhood are wearing masks," they may be more likely to do the same, she says.
One grand challenge of public-health decision making is helping everyone make the best choices. As Centola says, a lot of people work jobs they cannot do from home. So there are large networks of people whose lives, by necessity, haven't changed all that much.
"There's a kind of equity issue built into a lot of the public-health campaigns," he says. More affluent networks of people have the luxury of being able to shelter at home more or less full-time and act on high-level information, he notes. Whereas, "disadvantaged populations, even if they're hearing that information, it's just not as relevant to their circumstances, it's not manageable. And so it gets ignored."
One of the big challenges throughout the pandemic has, of course, been figuring out what the best decisions even are, given the unknowns about the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Good decisions may seem like moving targets as official recommendations keep changing, Chapman says. Which is all the more reason to be aware of not just the information we get, but also the actions we choose to take — or not.