COVID-19: The Polarizing Impacts of Uncertainty

What the pandemic can teach about decision making in high-pressure situations.

Posted Jun 12, 2020

There’s a chance that you’ll die of shigellosis. How do you react to that?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that worldwide, shigellosis kills about 600,000 people a year. But if you’re like me, you don’t know anything about it, you can’t think of a friend or relative who died from it, and so it doesn’t frighten you much. It’s just one of an endless list of issues to worry about, and there’s only so much worrying you can do.

Deciding how seriously to take any situation is difficult, and obviously fraught with all kinds of biases. How we frame the issues and who we trust make all the difference.

Source: Pixabay

Personally, I’ve noticed my feelings about COVID-19 changing significantly from day to day. When I see a number of people with overflowing carts at the grocery store who all appear tense, I feel that way too. A news report seems to share some hopeful finding? I’m suddenly much calmer. Nothing has changed in the world, it’s just the information I’m accessing in the moment.

We don’t make decisions out of thin air. We look around to see what others are doing. So our choices can spread through our networks, just like COVID-19 does. That means we have a responsibility to be careful what we’re spreading.

Unsurprisingly, many places are divided in their responses to the pandemic, even though it has the potential to impact all of us (although certainly not equally).

We’ve seen some governments taking advantage of the crisis for political gain and to undermine human rights, but we’ve seen many doing the very best they can to keep people healthy and together. We’ve seen a wide range of responses from individual citizens too—from panic to indifference, from hate crimes to acts of selfless generosity. I think this reflects some important facts, including how we decide what information to access and trust.

We live in a moment with fewer gatekeepers and a faster spread of ideas than ever before. Some of the wild speculation out there (like COVID-19 being created by aliens) is easy for most of us to dismiss. However stress makes conspiracy theories more appealing, and in situations with so many unknowns, it’s understandable that we want clear answers.

In terms of the speculation about COVID-19’s origins, there are multiple ideas raised by credible news sources, so it’s tough to know what to think. That’s not to mention the conflicting views expressed by some public health experts about lockdowns (biases of certain experts and polarized “medical tribalism” have been blamed for the harsh tone and nature of some of these debates).

We can readily read seemingly contradictory views about wearing masks, how the virus spreads, why some countries are doing so much better than others, the benefits and harms of contact tracing apps, and much more.

Source: Pixabay

The overwhelming number of messages can undermine shared understanding and trust. Indeed, the World Health Organization has warned of just that, focusing on the issue of too much competing information, and especially the dangers of “false prevention measures or cures.”

When shared trust is eroded, that bodes poorly for our shared health and wellbeing. Practices like physical distancing, washing our hands, or wearing face shields only work if enough people consistently do them, which requires believing public health experts and feeling a sense of community or mutual responsibility. Instead, we may be polarized into believing people who we identify with or who tell us what we want to hear.

Here in Toronto on a sunny day in late April, after weeks living under the stress of COVID-19, lockdowns, and economic uncertainty, a small number of protesters took to the streets. Their signs included one that read: “To deny people their human rights is to deny their very humanity–Nelson Mandela.” This is the nature of our beliefs. When we come to believe something, we can always find an authoritative voice that sounds to us like it’s on our side. (You can download a chapter I wrote explaining this phenomenon in detail here.)

The pandemic is also amplifying our different ways of thinking about and acting in the face of uncertainty. We’re always making decisions with limited and possibly inaccurate information. We never know for sure whether or not we’ll catch an illness, have an accident, or be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s just that right now, for many of us the pressures are much higher than usual. That can stress us out. As with everything though, some of us are more susceptible to this than others. And, amazingly enough, there are actually multiple ways to not know something.

Researcher Deborah Scott spent four years studying how a United Nations body deals with the uncertainties raised by new technologies. She points out that making decisions about something new can involve:

  1. Risk. In day-to-day conversations, we talk about risks, but that’s often technically incorrect. To know the risk of something, scientists have to already know a lot about it. Calculating risk demands a situation where potential outcomes can be thoroughly identified and their probabilities attributed. That only happens under controlled conditions or with very well known factors.
  2. Uncertainty is when the types and scales of possible outcomes are understood, but their probabilities aren’t. We might know a lot about the harms of feeling socially isolated, but our predictions of exactly how much that will impact people during physical distancing could still be uncertain, as specific probabilities remain difficult to predict.
  3. Ambiguity is when, rather than the probability of outcomes being in question, we can’t agree on their meaning. What is a reasonable length of time to measure for adverse health impacts of a new COVID-19 drug? What exactly should we measure? What should we ignore as insignificant? These are not purely scientific questions. They depend too on the values and motivations of the people making the decisions.
  4. Ignorance: we don’t even know what we don’t know.

Each of these relate to our responses to COVID-19. I find it very helpful to keep them in mind, because it’s easy to get confused about what sort of not knowing we’re even talking about!

Source: Pixabay

There’s a level of uncertainty, ambiguity, or ignorance behind all decisions. We make our choice based on one interpretation of the data that we’re aware of. That’s all. Where we enter shaky terrain is in saying more than we’re able to without realizing it and then attacking people who don’t agree.

The response to uncertainty doesn’t have to be a wishy-washy fear to make a choice. The COVID-19 pandemic demands fast decisions (which will be easy to second guess later when we have better data). But it is helpful to be as precise as possible in acknowledging what we don’t know, and in adjusting our ideas as better data becomes available.

The scale of responses, impacting entire countries, makes the situation incredibly complex with many outcomes that are difficult to foresee. For instance, not many of us would have thought of lockdowns impacting on the earth’s seismic activity (which they have), unless we were seismologists. So involving people with diverse expertise in decision making is important. It’s also important to acknowledge complexity, which means that one-size-fits-all responses are unlikely to work best.

Whether on COVID-19 or any other important decision affecting large numbers of people, there are going to be trade-offs. One strategy to address them is another factor that I think polarizes how we feel about responses to COVID-19. Some of us prefer to take precautions, not acting until the situation is known to be safe. Others prefer to take action until there’s proof that the situation is unsafe. (And again, what we consider enough “proof” either way is full of ambiguity.)

An important question for each of us right now is this: COVID-19 has made it obvious just how interwoven our lives are. What beliefs, values, and behaviors will you be spreading?