Geeta Menon and Ellie J. Kyung
June 10, 2020
Will colleges and universities restart in-person classes this fall? Will there be a vaccine for the novel coronavirus soon? Will there be a second wave of the virus? Do I wear a mask outside even if I plan to socially distance? How can I figure out which news sources and leaders to trust?
Every day we are faced with a torrent of information from news articles, cable networks, social media, the White House, the Center for Disease Control – and yet, there are no clear answers.
As humans, we innately find uncertainty to be an aversive state and are motivated to reduce it, even at a cost. Research has shown that people are calmer and less agitated when they know they are going to receive an electric shock than when they know there is a 50% chance they might receive an electric shock. Similarly, the threat of perceived job insecurity has more detrimental health effects than actually losing a job.
Feeling uncertain is not a natural state of being for us — it signals to the brain that things are not right. The brain then seeks out information to resolve the uncertainty. This desire for resolution is why feelings of uncertainty lead us to process information more systematically and deeply in the hope of finding answers.
But the coronavirus pandemic leaves us in a quandary: Our natural instinct is to try to resolve our intense feelings of uncertainty, but there is so much uncertainty around the virus and its effects that a quest for complete resolution is futile. So what can we do?
First, it is important to understand that uncertainty is multi-dimensional. There are at least three types of uncertainty: probability, ambiguity, and complexity. To cope with each, we have identified several strategies, both cognitive (to more effectively process and make sense of information) and emotional (to mitigate the stress and anxiety that result from uncertainty).
Probability uncertainty refers to situations in which it is difficult to ascertain risk levels: Not only do you not know what will happen, you also don’t know how likely each outcome is. For example, how much am I really at risk compared to others in my group? People of my age? People where I live? People who behave like me?
As a cognitive coping mechanism, the first thing to do is to understand that you are at risk as much as any other member of your group. Research shows that people tend to underestimate their own risk of contracting a disease or encountering a negative event. This is a self-positivity bias, that needs to be overcome. Recognize that you are as much at risk as everyone else, and focus on what you know you can do to reduce risk by complying with expert recommendations (e.g., wash hands often, wear facial coverings in public, maintain social distancing). Don’t be that person who gets yelled at in a grocery store for not wearing a mask!
Emotionally, it is important to embrace that you are at as much risk as the people around you and empathize with them on this common ground. Connect virtually (or in person with appropriate social distance, if allowed) with people you care about, whether they are friends, family or neighbors. Accept that we’re all in the same boat and we’re all doing our best to get through this together.
Ambiguity uncertainty refers to situations in which we are faced with imprecise, insufficient, or conflicting information. For example, we were told that the virus could be transmitted through hard surfaces such as cardboard, plastic, metal, etc. Now the CDC believes that the virus is mostly airborne and that the chances of contracting the virus through surfaces is very small. What does that mean for my behavior? Can I get the virus from not just someone’s cough, but if they speak to me? Is six feet of social distancing enough to protect myself?
As a cognitive coping mechanism, consolidate the different sources of information and try to get clarity through what social scientists call triangulation (i.e., using multiple measures or methods to ensure that they all converge on the same result). Rely most on information that is reported consistently through multiple reliable sources. But also understand that the coronavirus is novel, and that the science around it keeps evolving. So sometimes we need to find a non-cognitive approach that does not involve trying to resolve uncertainty.
Cope emotionally by knowing when it’s time to end the search for more information. Sources such as the CDC warn against information overload: “Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting.” Recognize that the endless search for clarity can create more stress than it alleviates, and sometimes enough is enough.
This occurs when an issue is technically complex and difficult to understand: For example, for non-statisticians, it can be hard to understand what “flattening the curve” really means, why it’s important, and how to balance different factors such as resource constraints, geographical variances, and economic considerations. Is it true that a week’s delay in lockdown in March led to a loss of 36,000 lives? And now, how is each state or county making the decision to reopen, and how are they balancing economic loss against the loss of human life?
As a cognitive coping mechanism, consult an expert source well versed in the field to break down complex information into understandable nuggets. Make sure to find sources grounded in science, not partisanship. And again, recognize when the quest for information is helpful, and when it isn’t. Maybe what’s needed right now is not to understand the details of each epidemiological model, but instead to just understand what actions we need to take to be safe. Simplify the complexity into an actionable piece of information (e.g., wear a mask when going outside).
If this gets too overwhelming, cope emotionally by finding ways to escape the complexity: Re-watch a favorite TV show, knit a blanket, or organize your closet by color. Or if you can, escape your own stresses by making this world a little less stressful for others: Donate to your local food bank, support your local businesses, or even bail someone out of jail.
Taking these steps to mitigate informational uncertainty will leave you with the mental bandwidth to cope with the many other important issues we all face. And in these trying times, it’s best to take every chance you get to unwind and find some moments of zen.
Geeta Menon is the Abraham Krasnoff Professor of Global Business, Professor of Marketing, and Dean Emeritus of the Undergraduate College, Stern School of Business, New York University. Ellie J. Kyung is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.
For more great articles, go to HBR.org.
2020 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.