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Cognition and perception, Covid

When the veil of certainty falls

Eleonore Batteux considers whether the pandemic will change our desire to see the future as predictable.

19 June 2020

We were clearly underprepared for this pandemic. Did we need to know it was coming to be prepared? To some extent, yes. But by assuming the future is predictable, our society is actually set up not to prepare for the unexpected. Is this pandemic the reality check we needed to change our approach to uncertainty for the better?

The distinction between risk and uncertainty was made a century ago (Knight, 1921). Under risk, you can quantify the possibility of future events – not under uncertainty. Despite living in a world of uncertainty more than risk, we behave as if the opposite was true. Indeed, people expect a level of certainty the world cannot offer them. Organisations make decisions based on overly precise forecasts. Governments frequently turn a blind eye to the possibility of uncertain events. Even decision-making research continues to confuse risk with uncertainty. Is this pandemic our chance to rectify this?

People expect certainty, even when told uncertainty prevails

People believe the future is predictable. This is not particularly surprising given that uncertainty leads to worry and reduces confidence (Han et al., 2011). But even when warned of uncertainty, people ignore it and continue to look for certainty (Batteux et al, 2020). Either they don't take it seriously, or the fear of uncertainty makes them cling on harder to their false sense of certainty. 

Politicians play on this – communicating with certainty wins them votes. In a way, politicians are reflections of their citizens. If people expect certainty, politicians are likely to sustain the illusion. But if people become sceptical of certainty, they adjust their communication. Does this mask a more realistic perception of uncertainty? Politicians were repeatedly warned of the risk of a pandemic yet chose not to invest the necessary resources. Turning funds away from current problems could be unpopular, but I doubt their five-year plan makes much room for uncertainty either. After all, it's not the first time policymakers have been criticised for relying on certainty (Manski, 2011).

What about if people experience uncertainty?

Telling people uncertainty exists doesn't stop their search for certainty. On the other hand, our new research shows that experiencing uncertainty can (Batteux et al., 2020). If you let people see for themselves that forecasts get it wrong, they start to catch on that the future can't be predicted with such precision. They lose confidence in those who communicate with certainty.

This pandemic has opened our eyes to the nature of uncertainty. We are constantly being challenged on our ability to identify facts by being forced to recognise their associated uncertainties. We are realising that forecasts are weak promises and cannot tell us what the future holds. For a moment, politicians even seemed to abandon the communication strategy they know usually wins them votes. Is this reason to be hopeful?

Relying on certainty was instrumental in the last financial crisis (Gigerenzer, 2014). More than a decade later, the same kind of thinking prevails – the financial sector ignored this pandemic, and once it couldn't anymore, crashed. But this is preventable. Will this pandemic make us respond differently to future unexpected events? We will soon find out. In the meantime, we can look at the possible avenues and work towards a desirable path. Just like the financial sector should have, we ought to make sure we don't repeat our mistakes. Luckily, we have psychological concepts and theories to call upon.

Embracing ambivalence

Conviction Narrative Theory (Tuckett & Nikolic, 2017) offers an account of decision-making under uncertainty which finally embraces the complexities of the real world. In a nutshell, it proposes that we use narratives to understand the past and imagine the future. These narratives are what gives us the conviction to act under uncertainty. The theory has much to say about what a path to resilience to uncertainty looks like, of which the starting point is openness to multiple narratives. 

We have a concept for that – ambivalence. Being ambivalent is holding mixed feelings or attitudes. It was offered by the President of the American Sociology Association over two decades ago as an alternative to the rational model of human decision-making (Smelser, 1998). Despite its huge potential, it has been vastly understudied. Psychology tends to show that ambivalence hampers us, but other disciplines paint a rather different picture (Rothman et al, 2017).

What ambivalence does is put uncertain events on the horizon. People prepare for them, which makes them better accept negative outcomes. It can prevent the kind of blind spots which damage organisations and have in fact damaged the NHS before (Fotaki & Hyde, 2015). As a leader, displaying ambivalence may even gather support (Rothman & Melwani, 2017). Embracing ambivalence towards the future seems like a pretty good way to go.

Changing our approach to uncertainty for the better

A rapid response to Covid-19 was essential, which requires being truly open to the possibility of such events. Will people spot these sorts of events quicker in the future? Ambivalence does mean you broaden your horizon, so if we develop it, yes. But what if the balance tips towards anxiety instead? This should make us even more attuned to the negative (Bar-Haim et al, 2007). An anxious population is in no way desirable, but a touch of negative bias could rectify our tendency for relentless optimism (Sharot & Garrett, 2016). An optimism which blinds us and encourages the kind of thinking which fails to prepare us for uncertainty.

What does unpreparedness lead to when the veil of certainty falls? Panic. Panic helped the pandemic response in some ways – it motivated people to act fast and adhere to guidelines. But making decisions under uncertainty requires conviction. Panic is not conducive to that. And when it is, it directs the focus on putting out the fire, failing to consider where the fire is being redirected to.

Panic made government strategies focus on preventing lost lives. This was key to controlling the virus, but it is taking a huge amount of time for the unintended consequences of this strategy to be properly accounted for. What do we do about education? Mental health? Jobs? The list goes on. Perhaps it wouldn't have to if ambivalence had fuelled decision-making. If panic hadn't narrowed their attention, governments might not have cast these issues aside.

There is momentum for this pandemic to be a turning point. People are unlikely to forget waking up to their lives turned upside down. With less incentive to ignore warnings, preventing future shocks should go up the government's priority list.

The academic presence on uncertainty is also picking up speed. Earlier this year, the former governor of the Bank of England co-authored a book on radical uncertainty (Kay & King, 2020). The Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Certainty called for a new office for Global Risk Preparedness (Global Solutions Initiatives, 2020). The BPS's Psychological Government Programme is filling the uncertainty void with perspectives on how to deal with it. In a world of uncertainty, our fate is not certain – we have the agency to overcome it. 

So, are we going to fall back on our craving for certainty and the motivated belief that this was an isolated event? Or are we going to accept that the rose-tinted spectacles we wear to protect ourselves infect us with short-sightedness? Because whatever virus they give us, it certainly does not make us immune to uncertainty.

- Dr Eleonore Batteux is Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty (CSDU), University College London.


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