How we handle unexpected uncertainty

The Covid-19 pandemic brought with it unexpected uncertainty, which saw many consumers panic buying and stockpiling basic household items and according to a study led by UNSW Sydney, reactive behaviour like this is a common way to handle uncertain times.

The behavioural study, recently published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, is the first to show the type of uncertainty we experience – that is, whether it is expected or unexpected – plays a key role in our reaction.

“When people experience an unexpected change in their environment, they start looking for ways to lessen that uncertainty,” says the lead author of the study, Dr Adrian Walker, who completed this research as part of his PhD in psychology at UNSW Science.

“They can change their behaviour and decision-making strategies to try and find a way to regain some sense of control.

“Surprisingly, our study found that unexpected uncertainty caused people to change their behaviours even when they would have been better off sticking to an old strategy.”

Dr Walker says the pandemic – and our different responses to it – is a large-scale example of unexpected uncertainty.

“Everything changed very suddenly at the start of Covid-19,” he says.

“Many of us were suddenly all working from home, changing how we shop, and changing how we socialise.

“The rules we were living by beforehand no longer applied, and there was – and still is – no clear answer about when or how the pandemic will end.

“Different people tried all sorts of things – like panic shopping – to reduce this new uncertainty and return to ‘normal’. But as we’ve seen, not all of these reactive strategies were good in the long run.”

While uncertainty is something we face every day, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown a new layer of uncertainty into major areas of our lives, like career, health, and living circumstances.

“While this study isn’t the whole picture for human behaviour during the pandemic, it can help explain why so many people looked for new ways to add certainty to their lives,” says Dr Walker.

For more information and to read the study, visit: doi.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fxlm0000883

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