Pandemic Decision-Making Is Difficult and Exhausting – Here’s the Psychology that Explains Why –

You want to sit down for an indoor dinner with friends. A couple of years ago, this was a simple enough activity that required minimal planning. However, that is not the case in today’s world. Many people now face a stream of further considerations about benefits and risks.

Will I enjoy the experience? What are the potential downsides? Am I comfortable with the restaurant’s pandemic-related policies? What’s the ventilation like? Is it very busy there at this time of day? Am I planning to see lots of people, or people with compromised immune systems, in the near future?

This is exhausting! As scientists at the Learning and Decision-Making Lab at Rutgers University-Newark, we’ve noticed how many decision-making processes are affected by the pandemic. The accumulation of choices people are making throughout the day leads to what psychologists call decision fatigue – you can end up feeling overwhelmed and make bad decisions. The current pandemic can make this situation more pronounced, as even the choices and activities that should be the most simple can now feel tinged with risk and uncertainty.

Risk involves known probabilities – for example, the likelihood of losing a certain hand in poker. But uncertainty is an unknown probability – you can never really know the exact chance of catching COVID-19 by engaging in certain activities. Human beings tend to be both risk-averse and uncertainty-averse, meaning that you likely avoid both when you can. And when you can’t – as during a confusing phase of a pandemic – it can be draining to try to decide what to do.

Rules are easy, decisions are hard

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most people didn’t think through some basic decisions in the same way they might now. In fact, even early in the pandemic you didn’t really need to. There were rules to follow whether you liked them or not. Capacity was limited, hours were restricted, or shops were closed. People were strongly urged to opt out of activities they’d normally engage in.

This is evident in data we collected from university 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 classes online,” “Being forced to …….


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