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How is uncertainty for you? What science tells us about four responses to uncertainty.

One of the most famous conspiracy theories of all time is that the moon landing was staged. Photo credit: NASA

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak and its classification by the WHO as a pandemic on March 11th, 2020, uncertainty has increasingly become part of our daily lives. Barring our relationships, almost everything we held to be a certainty has changed. A shifting, grey cloud of ambiguity hangs over almost every decision and action in daily life, from planning our jobs and holidays, to the weekly shop. In this context, how are people responding and adapting to the holes in our knowledge of the certainties of life? What new behaviors and coping responses are we seeing? What new stories are people telling and why?

In this blog, I will explore possible responses to uncertainty and apply these to recent events associated with the pandemic.

Uncertainty is now present in a range of domains:

  • Economic: cash flow disruptions, job insecurity, small business failure, worry about pensions

  • Health and well-being of the nation: the death toll, the response, whether all people are being caught in time, why is the death rate increasing that is not due to corona?

  • Food and nutrition:— from the availability of food to resources to buy food.

  • Support for vulnerable and at-risk groups. Children, children in care, new mothers, teenage mothers, adults with long term diseases, obese adults, adults with mental health issues, homeless people.

  • Time and the future: Uncertainty about when lock down will end, businesses, organisations, universities and schools will reopen

  • Childcare and schooling- is everyone receiving the same, is childcare and schooling enough for adults to work, is it enough to support children both with their well-being and their academic progression

  • Risk of transmission and individual health: Uncertainty about who has the virus (testing is not widely available and testing is not 100% accurate) and unexplained symptoms.

  • Safety of the workplace for NHS and Key workers. Concerns from staff about whether they have sufficient personal protective equipment and other safety measures to be at work and be safe.

Responses to uncertainty can be good, bad and ugly. The British family of six that sang the uncertainty of lock-down adapted Les Miserable song made music and delight from uncertainty. However, not all of us can, or will, generate these creative or resilient approaches all of the time. Doing so may be hard under resource constraints. It’s human not to have a positive or creative response to uncertainty and research tells us that world events, such as a pandemic like this one, increase stress and increase feelings of uncertainty and fear of death.

Four responses to uncertainty

1) Optimism Bias

Optimism bias is the idea that things will be better than they are in reality.

Scientists have measured optimism bias by capturing an individual's expectations event before versus after. Many of us have that friend or relative who serves this function. They are a “living reality check”, when you get a new job or looking forward to a special event such as a wedding, they will remind you of the negative aspects, lots of standing around waiting for the happy couple, making conversation with people you don’t know and will never see again. They call you after to check how it was and usually they are often irritatingly correct. Studies find that most of us find the anticipation of a holiday much better than the actual experience.

Optimism bias has been at play when people feel that they can avoid social distancing because they will not get coronavirus, or, that individuals working with the public do not need to wear PPE. Any type of undue optimism that things will be well in spite of a known perceived risk suggests an overly optimistic bias is at play. Another example was holding a rock concert at the start of a pandemic.

By the way of contrast, China’s response to COVID-19 was not one of optimism bias but involved high levels of control. This was not a response based on wishful thinking. The government pursed strict controls on movement, isolation, and quarantine in late January, the number of new cases reduced by February, and no recorded new cases by 19th March.

2) Conspiracy theories: Is wearing a tinfoil hat good for you?

Some of us find conspiracy theories a tough pill to swallow. The classic conspiracy theory is that the moon landing was staged (Swami, Chamorro-Premuzic, & Furnham, 2010). Within the current pandemic, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories. In fact, if you wanted to make one up you may be able to find a supporter. World catastrophes increase stress anxiety have been found to increase the risk of believing in conspiracy theories (Swami, 2016). People try to make sense of an uncertain and complex situation from simplistic explanations on social media, such as, “It’s all his fault (insert powerful global individual’s name)”.

The research on conspiracy theories is revealing. Conspiracy ideation is higher in people that are more suspicious (Swami et al., 2013). Suspicion involves thinking about the motives of others. The motive is a key element of conspiracy theories, even when there is not much evidence to support the theory itself (Bost & Prunier, 2013). Some researchers suggest conspiracy theories return a sense of control to the believer. They say they are more likely to be subscribed to when a threat to control is occurring (van Prooijen & Acker, 2015). Notably, if ever there has been a threat to control it is now. We are stuck in lock-down with our decision making and movement inhibited, albeit for an essential reason: to protect ourselves, families and communities.

So, how could believing a theory unfounded on evidence, that ascribes nefarious intentions to an individual or group of individuals be helpful? Many authors have argued that thinking about the motives of others that is needed in daily interaction in social life (Cosmides &Tooby 1992; Vohs et al. 2007). Being able to ascribe intentions to others is part of what makes us human, a key ingredient of our social cognition.

However, whilst conspiracy theories may confer some benefits, they can have many negative effects on people and society. Conspiracy ideation is associated with lower levels of trust (Abakalina-Papp et al., 1999; Goertzel, 1994) and subclinical paranoia (Darwin et al. 2011; Grzesiak-Feldman & Ejsmont 2008). Furthermore, crimes have been committed in the names of conspiracy theories, such as the murders of women in 2018 committed by “Incels”, single, heterosexual men who claimed that their lack of relationships with women was a conspiracy. Swami (2016) argues that through stress reduction it may be possible to reduce the likelihood of believing in conspiracies.

3) Denial. “Denial is a river in Egypt”

Denial refers to the avoidance of painful feelings or facts. Some evidence of denial can be seen in responses such as “Corona is like flu, people die every year from the flu.” Whilst in the early days (December 2019), we might have hoped that this was the case, the fact that COVID-19 is not like the flu is now well-established (due to a range of reasons including the high mortality rate, the lack of a vaccine and knock-on effect on ICU units, hospitals, and morgues).

Despite this, the view that it corona is similar to the flu has been repeated by members of the public, as well as recently by politicians trained in epidemiology responsible for national health policy.

Worryingly, some people are gathering regardless of the science, such as the recent protests in America. Perhaps these individuals are not in denial, however? Instead, some of the protesters may be making a trade-off. Maybe they are more willing to risk getting the virus than sacrifice their business or freedom? But what is the value of freedom if you risk yourself or your loved one’s health? It does appear that there is some missing information about the effects of contagion. Whilst the need for a hair-cut was cited by some protesters, it’s likely the true cost of such a haircut is not fully understood or, there are some hugely different values in action.

4) Intolerance to uncertainty

Intolerance of uncertainty (IU) has been defined as “a dispositional characteristic that results from a set of negative beliefs about uncertainty and its implications and involves the tendency to react negatively on an emotional, cognitive, and behavioral level to uncertain situations and events” (Buhr & Dugas, 2009, p. 216).

Through a questionnaire, psychologists have measured the extent that people find uncertainty stressful and upsetting. This has included how uncertainty might hinder the ability to act or respond and whether they perceive it as unfair (Buhr & Dugas, 2002).

Intolerance of uncertainty is a risk factor for a range of mental health disorders, specifically, depression, anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). At the level of common sense, it is possible to see how uncertainty may link with these disorders. Excessive thinking about uncertain futures is linked with worry and anxiety. Sadness about the consequences of uncertainty, such as losing a business, maybe linked with depression. Taking small regular actions (such as weighing oneself many times a day) in an attempt to control the feelings associated with uncertainty links with compulsive behaviors.

In conclusion, four perspectives have been outlined here: optimism bias, denial, conspiracy theories, and intolerance of uncertainty and there are many more. These ideas enable us to ‘get up on the balcony’ and observe what’s happening worldwide.

Maybe we will keep seeing a greater range of responses in an increasingly uncertain COVID-19 world. In my view, these perspectives can help us to both understand and have compassion for some of the individuals showing these behaviors (from our friends to vocal proponents on social media channels), as well as be prepared for some of the negative responses to the uncertainty that can occur.

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