How uncertainty affects us in a pandemic, from the eyes of a cognitive psychologist

Illustration by Emma DiMaggio

A single Google search of “COVID-19” offers six billion webpages. Wading through this sea of information is a task in itself.

To mask or not to mask? Dine-in or take out? Meeting or Zoom session?

When people are faced with uncertainty, they fall back on what they know best; their own biases.

According to cognitive psychologist Dan Chiappe, that’s just human nature. With no overarching concept of consensus, people are left to make up their own minds.

“We’ve become so ideological in our thinking, where the virus itself doesn’t give a d**m about what your freedoms are,” Chiappe said, referring to Albert Camus’ book The Plague. “Viruses, plagues erase human freedom.”

City Health Officer Anissa Davis has seen this in action.

“One of the definitions of the pandemic is it completely overwhelms everyone’s systems and all of society’s systems and that’s what you can see,” she said.

When COVID-19 strengthened its grip on the country in March, many reacted in panic. Within a week of California’s statewide lockdown, grocery store shelves were barren. High demand prompted a global shortage of N94 masks. By the end of the month, Long Beach had 70 cases.

Now, five months later, restaurants are open. Grocery stores remain stocked. The city is working on a functionally altered “business as usual” framework.

But the city no longer has 70 cases of COVID-19. As of today, health officials reported 9,736 cases in Long Beach and 190 deaths.

So what changed?

Chiappe is a professor of psychology at California State University, Long Beach. As a cognitive scientist researching situational awareness, he specializes in human reasoning, decision making, memory and judgment.

He said the pandemic has brought to light cognitive biases that result in potentially unsafe understandings of the pandemic at large.

[pullquote speaker=”Dan Chiappe, Cognitive Psychologist” photo=”” align=”center” background=”off” border=”none” shadow=”off”]People are drowning in information, and that’s called a frame problem, when you’re exposed to so much information that you can’t find out what’s relevant anymore.[/pullquote]
Infographic by Emma DiMaggio

The effect of uncertainty

According to Chiappe, decades of research in cognitive psychology show that people aren’t very good at reasoning about uncertainty.

“The thing about people is that they want certainty, and scientists and medical doctors can’t give them certainty,” Chiappe said. “They can tell them probabilities, but again people aren’t really good at reasoning about those.”

The City of Long Beach releases updated COVID-19 case numbers daily, which are then updated with accurate case numbers days later. Such ever-changing and oftentimes conflicting information heightens uncertainty.

In the beginning of the pandemic, many underestimated the force of the virus. An article by USA TODAY published in January quoted an Arizona researcher stating, “It more likely is, at the worse case, that they have the flu, not some strange new virus they’ve never heard of.”

The World Health Organization categorized COVID-19 as having only a “moderate” global risk level in January. They later revised this decision and recategorized it as having “high” global risk.

“The data is changing so quickly. There are so many different nuances and caveats to things that I think that’s really difficult to have a firm grip on,” Davis said of her time dealing with the pandemic.

“I think that’s something that has a lot of psychological impacts on people, anxiety and fear when you don’t know something for sure.”

Infographic by Emma DiMaggio

Feelings of anxiety, fear and uncertainty are compounded during a pandemic, creating an environment that leads to confusion.

“People are drowning in information, and that’s called a frame problem,” Chiappe said. “When you’re exposed to so much information that you can’t find out what’s relevant anymore.”

People have different ways of coping with this excess of information.

“It’s not just that it’s a lot of change, but then it’s a lot of frightening data that’s coming out of hospitalizations and deaths and people being infected,” Davis said. “[For] some, maybe it’s too much, and so they might have to be in a state of denial.”

According to Chiappe, when people don’t know where to turn to for information, they seek out sources that confirm their existing ideologies.

For example, people who believe that masks are ineffective will seek sources that back up that belief. Chiappe said that partisan media is only intensifying this problem.

“These grand narratives are clashing with each other,” Chiappe said. “All the while, the virus is just laying waste to many peoples’ lives.”

When trusted sources, like local and federal governments, present conflicting information, uncertainty intensifies. While President Donald Trump refused to wear a mask in public until July 14, Long Beach’s health department had been urging residents to wear masks for months.

Davis said these mixed messages caused further confusion.

“There are definitely mixed messages that the public was getting from the federal government: Whether you should wear a mask, not wear a mask, go out, don’t go out,” she said.

These messages can also get lost in translation. In June, in unison with the state government, Long Beach opened up some business sectors with alterations to account for the virus, even as case numbers continued to rise.

“I think the message that the public got was that, ‘If it’s safe for me to go to a restaurant, then I should be able to have a birthday party with five or ten people,” Davis said.

“That isn’t the case.”

People misconstrue statistical information like case numbers, deaths and hospitalizations.

“People are very bad intuitive statisticians,” Chiappe said. “They don’t know how to evaluate statistical information as presented to them.”

Infographic by Emma DiMaggio

One outcome of this is overconfidence bias. Studies show that people think they’re smarter than average, less gullible than the average person and less likely to be duped, Chiappe said.

Similarly, they’re convinced they’re less likely to catch the virus.

“People inevitably think that the statistics don’t apply to themselves,” Chiappe said.

How individuals react to the pandemic affects the community

In early June, over 30 million people nationwide had made unemployment claims. When businesses reopened, many had to grapple with more contradictory information.

As governments told citizens that interacting with strangers was dangerous, workers were also deemed “essential” to the economy, thrust back into their jobs.

This furthers people’s uncertainty. Forced to revise their view on the pandemic, Chiappe said people must “downplay the threats of the virus in order to justify going out and make a living.”

“A lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck. They simply don’t have a choice,” Chiappe said. “This is exploiting all those problems and forcing people to go out, irrespective of what they think about the risk.”

Davis’ work in the Long Beach Health Department grapples with these issues. Long Beach is in a unique position in this regard, being one of only three cities in California with its own health department.

“It is just this tightrope that you’re walking to balance all the competing needs, which are all very important,” Davis said.

“This is, I hope, a once in a lifetime moment.”

For more information about the city’s health guidelines, visit their website here.


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