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University of Basel

17 March 2020

Covid-19: Nine lessons from psychology to make good decisions now

Crossroad sign that says "Choice" (Picture: geralt | pixabay)
Classical psychological effects can be observed in the current handling of the coronavirus situation. (Picture: geralt | pixabay)

Much of the media coverage on COVID-19 focuses on numbers and statistics. While this can be helpful, it might also be overwhelming and confusing. How to decide how to act in the current situation? Social psychologists from the University of Basel recommend nine practical tips on how to make decisions now.

Shaking hands, lunching with colleagues, cancelling holidays, staying home? The coronavirus demands us to take many unforeseen decisions. PhD candidate Maria Douneva’s research focuses on the topic of decisions. She observes classical psychological effects in the current handling of the coronavirus situation – many of which are unconscious. Together with Professor Rainer Greifeneder, she has formulated nine findings from social psychology that should help to make good decisions at the moment.

1. General trend vs. individual cases

“Peoples’ actions are more likely to be influenced by individual fates, both positive and negative, than by statistics,” explains Douneva. Yet, to understand the current pandemic, it is important to go beyond single cases and to focus on the general trend within a region, country or continent. Animations and simulations by scientists visualize trends that are not seen when focusing on individual cases only. Understanding these trends can help to take the right steps at the right time.

2. “You see what you are looking for”

People are more likely to look for information that supports their own view, often even unconsciously. “If I want to feel reassured, I will look for reassuring messages,” says Douneva. This is a general tendency that often makes things easier, but it can also lead to false confidence. It is therefore helpful to assess the current situation from different perspectives and with an open mind.

3. A critical eye on fake news and conspiracy theories

Fake news and conspiracy theories are spreading fast. People find it hard to distance themselves from fake news – even when they know that the source is not trustworthy. What's more: “The more often you read something, the more likely you are to believe it,” explains Douneva. It helps to not trust the first impression, to take a closer look and to share information only after critically checking the source.

4. False optimism

Many decisions are made based on experience. However, not many people have experienced an event like the current pandemic. As a result, we tend to be overly optimistic when it comes to rare negative events. The social psychologist explains: “You think that only  a few percent will be hard hit and that you are not one of them.” However, there is absolutely no reason to assume that the virus will stop outside of anyone's door. So hand washing and social distancing makes sense for everyone.

5. Perception vs. reality

People think that their own wellbeing is clearly perceptible to others, but this is not the case. This is the reason why some people think that they are the only ones who worry. “This person then does not care to cancel lunch, because he or she is afraid that the others would find it an exaggeration,” says Douneva. “But if someone goes first, the others might follow.” The conclusion: Decisions should not be based on assumptions. Sharing your own thoughts is key.

6. Present vs. future

People have a tendency to place more emphasis on the present than to plan for the future. But: As small effort today can help to avoid later consequences. Cancelling holidays today is associated with costs – but later it may be even more expensive and time-consuming. Also, social norms can change quickly. A week ago, some might have said not to shake hands is paranoid. Today things look quite differently. Douneva therefore advises: “You should not be afraid to start with an unusual behavior now if it is recommended.”

7. Spent is spent

“It is a natural reflex to want to recoup investments,” says Douneva. But: Taking a trip, just because you have already paid, does not bring back the money. It helps to ask oneself how one would act if there had not been a prior investment, says the social psychologist. “And, crucially, will you really be able to enjoy this trip if you know that you are putting yourself, others and the healthcare system at risk?”

8. Loss vs. gain

The current situation brings renunciation – but it also brings opportunities. “How often do people say: I wish I had more time,” Douneva suggests. Now is the time to tackle postponed activities such as reading more books or playing the piano more often.

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