Close Calls

Joseph Kable, Baird Term Professor of Psychology, discusses decision making amidst the pandemic.

Monday, July 13, 2020

By Blake Cole

Joseph Kable, Baird Term Professor of Psychology

Why people do the things that they do, and what motivates that behavior, especially when dealing with the stress and challenges of a global pandemic? Research by Joseph Kable, Baird Term Professor of Psychology, seeks to understand how people make decisions by taking a multilevel approach: understanding the process at both the psychological and biological level.

“We’re analyzing individual differences in how people make decisions about the future,” says Kable. “For example, the degree to which they are impulsive and want everything now, versus persistent and plan for future rewards at the expense of immediate temptation.”

As the federal- and state-level responses to the pandemic shift—some regions have eased recommendations and regulations when it comes to public behavior, while others have been more reticent—and more people begin to travel outside their homes and resume “normal” behavior, Kable says many will begin to encounter a complex web of choices they may or may not be conscious of, and much of this comes down to risk evaluation.

“People differ in the degree to which they tolerate risks—the degree to which they're averse to it,” says Kable. “This is relevant to this question of how people are going to make decisions in the coming days as we come out of lockdown. And one of the ways in which we can measure those differences is by giving people decisions where we know the probability and magnitude of different outcomes.”          

An example of the quantitative approach Kable and his fellow researchers use to measure decision making might be as simple as asking participants, would you rather have $20 guaranteed, or would you rather flip a coin and chance getting $50? This introduces probability, which Kable says researchers then vary, leading to more and more complex scenarios—and thus more diverse data. For instance, maybe it's not a coin, but a die roll. This alters the magnitudes of the different options, and allows researchers to place people precisely on a scale from most risk-averse to most risk-seeking. When it comes to scenarios like a pandemic, these same questions of risk-taking and probability play out in a very real sense.

“We're social beings, and this matters in how we perceive risk and make decisions,” says Kable. “This means there is variability in the willingness to engage in social situations that might come with some probability of greater exposure to coronavirus.”          

Kable says one reason why these decisions are going to be complicated for people is because they involve small probabilities, and decisions that involve small probabilities—especially multiple small probabilities—are more difficult for people to work through.

“We're not very good at weighing very small probability events,” says Kable. “If you've been lucky enough to not know anyone who's been affected by COVID-19, you're likely going to underestimate the risk because it's not something that's touched your personal experience.”                      

Behavior will be largely dictated by social norms, Kable notes, which in the U.S. vary greatly from place to place.

“What has me a little worried is that there's a lot of disagreement across communities about what people think is safe and what people think is responsible,” says Kable. “And I think that's going to lead to pockets of communities with different social norms that are coming out of lockdown in different ways.”

Some countries, for instance, already maintain a strong social norm that you should wear a mask when you're sick. In these countries’ case, adoption of universal mask-wearing during the pandemic has been a much easier transition. In contrast, in the U.S., this is a new behavior.

“Unfortunately, the mask rollout happened in such a way that it’s been divided into ingroups and outgroups in terms of our political beliefs,” Kable says. “It just so happens that along those lines there has been some division in terms of whether masks should be worn or shouldn't be worn. In order to come to some universal agreement, we're going to have to break that down, because otherwise, there are two different groups that have settled on two different solutions about what the social norms should be.”

When it comes to consumerism and social engagement, many decisions are based around people’s genuine desire to see people again. These meaningful events usually involve large gatherings of people, whether it’s a marriage ceremony or merely going to see a movie.

“Any card-carrying Philadelphian remembers where they were when the Eagles won the Super Bowl,” says Kable. “These are events that involve large gatherings of people experiencing the same event. I think that's going to be a real psychological loss to the extent that that doesn't come back immediately.”

In regards to children, the pandemic has created an evolving dynamic. In some cases, kids have been thought to be less susceptible—a topic still very much open to debate in the scientific community. As parents look at variables like summer camp and the eventual reopening of schools, Kable says their decision making will hold its own challenges.

“We generally try to protect our children even more than we would ourselves,” he says. “I think one of the reasons why there's a lot of anxiety about these decisions is that we're still learning—and there's some ambiguity about—the effects of the virus on children, and now we're considering that there might indeed be risks.”          

This all begs the question, if there is a second wave, will people respond differently? Is even a single experience enough to really influence future decisions?

“There are certain behaviors that were unfamiliar to us before, which include things like physical distancing and isolating and mask wearing,” says Kable. “But I think there can also be ways in which that previous experience could have an adverse effect on the next wave if people perceive that the things they did the first time were unnecessary, or thought that they were overreacting. Whatever people conclude about how their behavior helped on the first round, I think that the evidence suggests that we saved a lot of lives by shutting things down and could've saved even more by shutting them down sooner. Certainly, having that experience is going to make it easier the next time this happens—to make that call.”