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Decision Making in the Age of COVID-19

Are you framing your selfies more carefully than your personal choices?

We each make hundreds of decisions every day: When to wake up, what to wear, who to answer on email? Fortunately, most of those choices are routine, and of little consequence. Periodically, we face decisions that will have a long-term impact on our careers, relationships, and well-being. But, typically, the timing of these decisions is within our control, there is no single correct choice, and we can change course later if we wish to.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has changed our decision-making landscape. Now simply deciding whether to order groceries online or venture to the store is fraught with worry. The lack of clear guidance on best practices has left some of us spraying Lysol on our grocery bags and searching for N95 masks online, while others are coping by telling themselves that the threat is exaggerated. Families are arguing about whether to stay away from elderly relatives to protect them from the virus or to visit them to protect them from loneliness and depression. Parents are struggling to figure out how to balance their own work and their children’s social and educational needs when no one really knows how safe our schools will be this fall.

These virus-infused choices are uniquely poised to make us stressed. The environment around us doesn’t look different or threatening as it would during a war or disaster. But, the risk of making the wrong choice is literally life and death for some people.

Normally, when we need to make health-related decisions we turn to scientists, physicians, health care workers, and public health officials. But this virus caught us all off guard. Our elected officials are fighting with each other and our health care experts. States and cities are adopting wildly different policies and the news media is filled with negative health and economic forecasts. To make matters worse, we don’t know when a viable vaccine will emerge, how long it will take to produce, or how long it will last, leaving us all with a sense of ambient anxiety.

Our angst makes sense in terms of the risk perception theories which suggest that when we believe that the consequences of a decision are dire, could affect a lot of people, and are influenced by technological forces outside of our control, we have trouble making decisions, and frequently make problematic choices.

Think for a minute, about the number of people who announced after 9/11 that they were never going to fly again, even though statistically, driving is indisputably more dangerous. In our highly polarized political environment, fueled by a media system that rewards divisive behavior with attention and economic reward, it can be easy to assume that there is no way to make good decisions about our own safety, and that of the people and things we care about.

The solution, however, lies in our ability to use reason, critical thinking, and the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy to manage our choices. First, we have to accept that the pandemic, its negative economic consequences, and the current social unrest are changing the world around us in ways we never anticipated. But in reality, we are never in full control of our environment; only our responses to what happens.

Filmmakers, photographers, lawyers, philosophers, and politicians, have long known that the way you frame a picture, an argument, or position can make all the difference in how it is received. So perhaps the key to making good decisions during this age of fear and anxiety is to use a framework that enables us to consider our options before acting. I think of this as a way to consciously “FRAME” our choices through the following five-step process.

F: Find the most reputable sources of information you can. Practice media literacy by looking below the surface of each message you see to figure out who is responsible for the message you are seeing, what it is based on, and who benefits from the position being advocated. Be particularly wary of sources you can’t verify, and solutions that seem too good to be true.

R: Review the facts from a variety of angles and recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all answer for most complicated problems. While your neighbors may be sending their kids back to school because they have no other childcare alternative, keeping your child home because of an underlying health condition might be the best choice for you.

A: Analyze your emotions. How do you feel about the choice you are making? Perhaps you are angry that you even have to balance your need to earn a living with your need to protect yourself from the virus. But focusing on that anger may distract you from making good decisions. Emotions like pain indicate that something is wrong, but you can only respond appropriately if you figure out the actual cause of the discomfort.

M: Make a choice by evaluating the costs and benefits of different strategies. There may not be a guarantee that you are doing the right thing but failing to make any choice isn’t helpful either. When making complex mental health decisions, my colleagues and I often think in terms of which choice we would want to defend if questioned later. Perhaps my client wasn’t actually suicidal, but I would rather request a welfare check and be wrong than fail to do so when I should have.

E: Evaluate how your decision is working out, and change course if necessary. The best athletes, creative folks, and scientists aren’t afraid to change direction if they realize that what they are doing isn’t working.

The bottom line is that the world was a risky place before the pandemic, and there will be new challenges even after it becomes another chapter in the history books. But the benefit of having a large, adaptable brain is that we can use it to FRAME our choices in ways that help us to make the best decisions we can in an uncertain world.


Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco……