Dispatches from a Pandemic: ‘People find waiting incredibly unpleasant:’ A behavioral economist on why doing nothing during the coronavirus pandemic is so hard — and how to make it easier

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In responding to COVID-19, much of what the public is being asked to do is the thing we are least well-equipped to do in the face of a crisis: Nothing.

People find waiting incredibly unpleasant, particularly when there is any uncertainty in the outcome. Some scientists are warning that we may need to be social distancing until a vaccine becomes available, but if and when that will occur is uncertain. In the meantime, policy makers need to think carefully about things that can be done to make waiting more tolerable, both to increase the chance of extended adherence and to prevent mass-scale mental-health breakdowns.

Waiting is one of the most unpleasant experiences people regularly endure.

Waiting is one of the most unpleasant experiences people regularly endure: waiting for an exam grade, a medical diagnosis, results from a job interview or audition. There are myriad words in the English language for unpleasant feelings associated with waiting: “fear,” “anxiety,” “dread,” “trepidation.” Remarkably and, tellingly, there aren’t many words in the English language for a pleasurable state of waiting, though “anticipation” may fall into that category.

One of the things that makes waiting most unpleasant is uncertainty. This is even true of good things. Waiting for a date or a vacation or a wedding that one is confident will happen can be mildly pleasurable, but the tiniest bit of uncertainty, and the pleasure is gone. Waiting for something unpleasant, certain or uncertain, is not always unpleasant, but uncertainty just makes it worse.

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Dread, social scientists have found, is closely tied to the worst thing that can happen; not the most likely. The effect is so strong that people will often feel better when they know that something unpleasant is certain than when they are uncertain about whether it will happen or how bad it will be and, in some extreme cases, people will even instigate a dreaded event just to get it over with.

Time slows to a crawl when we are waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. The coronavirus is unfolding with unprecedented speed, but for those simply waiting to see how events will evolve, time seems to be moving in slow motion. Events are being canceled in April — two whole weeks away. At a human time scale it seems almost inconceivable that relief will not have arrived by then. But two weeks is a blink of the eye when it comes to the speed with which a pandemic unfolds.

So what can we do about it?

What are the implications for how policy makers should respond? Research on ‘fear appeals’ finds that they work best accompanied by clear directives for action. Showing someone photos of rotten teeth by itself mainly motivates them to avoid thinking about dental health; but accompanying the photos with messaging about how tooth brushing and flossing can prevent dental disease leads to a greater feeling of control and to positive behavior change.

People need to be given productive activities to engage in while they wait.

By the same token, scaring people about COVID-19 and asking them to isolate themselves from others and just wait it out at home — that is, to do nothing — is a prescription for fear rather than vigilance and compliance.

People need to be given productive activities to engage in while they wait. Research conducted in the aftermath of the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China found that those at the epicenter of the quake were less psychologically disturbed than those located at the periphery. A likely explanation is that those at the epicenter had their “hands full” with activities aimed at recovery while those at the periphery could only observe passively.

People are creating their own solutions to the tedium

In Italy, neighborhoods coordinated to sing-alongs together in the evenings to boost morale. A famous tenor joined from his balcony to give a free concert to the neighborhood. Following on that, in Iran, people have been sharing songs on social media groups to all play together at 7 p.m. Also in Iran, doctors and nurses started a dance challenge to dance in the hospital rooms to boost the morale of the medical staff and patients.

In Pittsburgh, a number of neighborhoods started Facebook FB, +0.51% groups to offer support to the elderly and those most vulnerable. Neighbors have been offering services such as grocery shopping, picking up medications, computer technical support, educational support for kids at home, or just someone to chat to. Within hours of starting such groups a very large number of people volunteered to help.

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A more superficially, but potentially surprisingly efficacious action would be to replace the term “social distancing” with “spatial distancing.” As we distance ourselves spatially, we have an even greater need for social contact, and for activities that bring ourselves together and give our lives meaning. Rather than waiting for the other shoe to drop, we need to gear up to support others.

George Loewenstein is the Herbert A. Simon Professor of Economics and Psychology in the Social and Decision Sciences Department at Carnegie Mellon University and director of the Center for Behavioral Decision Research.

This essay is part of a MarketWatch series, ‘Dispatches from a pandemic.’

MarketWatch photo illustration/iStockphoto

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