It’s exhausting. As scientists from the Learning & Decision-Making Lab at Rutgers University in Newark, we have noticed how many decision-making processes are affected by the pandemic. The accumulation of choices people make throughout the day leads to what psychologists call decision fatigue — you can end up feeling overwhelmed and making bad decisions. The pandemic can make this worse, as even the choices and activities that should be the simplest can seem tinged with risk and uncertainty.
Risk involves known probabilities – for example, the probability of losing a certain hand in poker. But uncertainty is unknown probability – you can never really know the exact likelihood of catching the coronavirus from engaging in certain activities. Humans tend to be both risk averse and uncertainty averse, which means you’re likely to avoid both when you can. And when you can’t — like during a confusing phase of a pandemic — it can be exhausting trying to decide what to do.
Decision fatigue: why it’s so hard to make a decision these days and how to make it easier
Simple rules, hard choices
Before the pandemic, most people didn’t think about certain fundamental decisions in the same way as they do now. Even at the start of the pandemic, you didn’t really need it. There were rules to follow if you liked them. Capacity was limited, hours were restricted or stores were closed. People were strongly urged to withdraw from activities they would normally engage in.
This is evident in the data we collected from college students in fall 2020 and spring 2021. One question we asked was, “What has been the hardest part of the pandemic for you?” Responses included “Not being able to see my friends and family”, “Having to take online classes”, “Being forced to stay home” and many other similar frustrations.
Many of our survey respondents were unable to do the things they wanted to do or were forced to do things they did not want to do. In both cases, the guidelines were clear and the decisions were less difficult.
As restrictions ease and people think about “living with” the coronavirus, the current phase of the pandemic brings with it a new need to make cost-benefit calculations.
Maybe 2022 should be the year we hand over decision-making to AI.
It is important to remember that not everyone has experienced these kinds of decisions in the same way. Throughout the pandemic, there have been people who didn’t have the luxury of choice and had to go to work regardless of the risk. There are also those who took risks from the start. On the other end of the spectrum, some people continue to stay in isolation and avoid almost any situation that could potentially contract the coronavirus.
Those who experience the most decision fatigue are those in the middle – they want to avoid the coronavirus but also want to resume the activities they enjoyed before the pandemic.
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” that “when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier question instead.”
It is difficult to make decisions about risk and uncertainty. For example, trying to think about the likelihood of catching a life-threatening virus by going to an indoor movie theater is difficult. So people tend to think in binary terms – “it’s safe” or “it’s not safe” – because it’s easier.
The problem is that answering easier questions instead of trickier ones makes you vulnerable to cognitive biases or thinking errors that affect your decision-making.
Why we fall into the political trap
One of the most common biases is the availability heuristic. This is what psychologists call the tendency to judge the likelihood of an event by how easily it comes to mind. The degree of coverage of a certain event in the media, or if you have seen examples of it recently in your life, can influence your estimate. For example, if you have recently read plane crash stories in the news, you may think that the likelihood of being in a plane crash is higher than it actually is.
The effect of the availability heuristic on pandemic-era decision-making often manifests itself in choices based on individual cases rather than general trends. On the one hand, people may feel good about going to a crowded indoor concert because they know other people in their lives who have done that and done well – so they judge the likelihood of catching the coronavirus is lower as a result. On the other hand, someone who knows a friend whose child caught the disease at school may now think that the risks of transmission in schools are much higher than they really are.
These schools have done less to contain covid. Their students have flourished.
Plus, the availability heuristic means these days you think a lot more about the risks of catching the coronavirus than about the other risks that life entails that get less media attention. While you worry about the adequacy of a restaurant’s ventilation system, you overlook the danger of having a car accident on your way there.
Decisions in general, and during a pandemic in particular, are about weighing risks and benefits and managing risks and uncertainties.
Due to the nature of probability, you cannot be sure in advance whether you will catch the coronavirus after agreeing to dine at a friend’s house. Also, the outcome does not make your decision right or wrong. If you weigh the risks and benefits and accept that dinner invitation, only to end up contracting the coronavirus at the meal, that doesn’t mean you made the wrong decision – it just means you rolled the dice and failed. .
On the other hand, if you accept the dinner invitation and don’t end up with the coronavirus, don’t be too smug; another time, the result might be different. All you can do is try to weigh what you know of the costs and benefits and make the best decisions possible.
During this next phase of the pandemic, we recommend that you remember that uncertainty is a part of life. Be kind to yourself and others as we all try to make our best choices.
Elizabeth Tricomi is an associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University in Newark. Wesley Ameden is a PhD student in psychology at Rutgers University-Newark.
This article was originally published on laconversation.com.