I have been researching how humans make decisions in contexts of risk and uncertainty for nearly thirty years. Much of this has been in the context of financial markets but much of what I have learned seems relevant to wider arenas. With colleagues in a national research network (Challenging Radical Uncertainty in Science, Society and the Environment – CRUISSE), I have recently been working on ways of understanding the technical, cognitive and emotional challenges of high impact decision-making in conditions of radical uncertainty. I record below some of my current reflections on the current pandemic. It is a longer read than many of my blogs but I hope it offers useful insights.
Social facts reduce our experience of uncertainty
“Adam’s commission, the naming of things, if only in the imagination, brings them into existence, objects of thought; like God, breathes into them the power of the word.”The naming of things, Nicholas Bielby
We swim in a sea of normally unnoticed uncertainties. In human societies, organisations and groups we construct, negotiate and share social facts which enable us to successfully collaborate and coordinate with others; even others on the other side of the world who we have never met. These shared social facts reduce our felt uncertainty by providing an experience of a familiar world that generally makes sense. Whilst we face the ‘brute facts’ of the physical world, such as gravity, on a regular basis, most of the ‘facts’ in which we deal in our everyday lives are social facts which depend for their stability on deeply shared common understandings of their meaning. They may be widely shared such as understandings of ‘money’ or ‘markets’ ‘calendar dates’ or ‘the NHS’ or more locally shared such as ‘good practice’ in decision-making routines in a business or government organisation, or taken for granted family routines. Unlike gravity, all of these ‘facts’ can shift and change; often slowly as in the gradual shift to understandings of money as a largely electronic medium of exchange or more rapidly as in the catastrophic breakdown of the meaning of money in Zimbabwe when annual inflation reached 1 trillion percent.
Our social world is not only the environment we inhabit, but it provides us with tools for thinking and engaging with the world: language, shared stories about the world; logics, formal models, recipes for action and so on. We develop everyday expertise in understanding and negotiating the problems we face in the contexts with which we are familiar that draws deeply on these socially shared stories and tools. These are capabilities which the most sophisticated artificial intelligence is yet to match.
What happens when social facts break down
However, despite the stability of meaning they bring, despite the protection they provide from uncertainty, our shared ways of understanding and framing the world regularly breakdown. The laws of physics may be invariant, but biological and social systems are in constant change and our models of the world work quite well until they don’t. This was discovered quite brutally by bankers and economists in the 2007/8 financial crisis. So what happens when events bring the provisional nature of our understanding of the world sharply into focus, when events no longer seem to fit the frames, categories and tools we have to understand them, as in the current pandemic? Faced with radical uncertainty about the world, how do humans develop sufficient conviction to act?
New wine in old bottles
First, we typically strive to make events fit our current frames for understanding. As I have suggested, the stability of meaning provided by our socially shared understandings is highly useful; so we abandon them with great reluctance. We saw this in the early stages of the current crisis. Early on, many of us (myself included), framed it as ‘a bit like the flu’. A frame which turned out to be substantially misleading. Human memory, both individual and collective has evolved not for accuracy of recall but for the needs of present action and understanding the future. We search collective and individual memory for relevant experiences and analogies and exploit the plasticity of our language to stretch old frames and categories to construct stories which fit new experiences. Policy makers and epidemiologists drew on comparisons with previous epidemics, Spanish flu, Ebola, SARS. Models were rapidly built and policies framed which drew on these analogies and informed early action.
The emotional challenge of abandoning old frames and stories
Second, uncertainty provokes anxiety. Events and information that challenge our ability to make sense are typically the site of strong emotions. If we can’t make sense of information or an event, we may disregard it, or reinterpret it in ways that make it feel less threatening. Often, despite real uncertainty, that should provoke ambivalent feelings about any action plan, we repress the ambivalence and polarise to either positive or negative emotions about the plan. This relieves the anxiety by generating felt certainty about the way forward. However, since emotions drive attention, a consequence is that information that threatens that sense of certainty is typically downplayed or disregarded. We saw this as the Covid-19 crisis evolved in the UK. Despite some information that suggested assumptions behind early models and framings were probably wrong, they proved quite sticky and were not abandoned until overwhelming evidence arrived from the evolution of the crisis in Italy, provoking adoption of new models and narratives about the crisis and provoking a significant policy shift to a focus on social distancing. Despite this shift, understandings of the potential role of mass testing moved slowly.
The emotional challenge of new narratives
Third, faced with information and events that prove impossible to ignore we try to construct new frames and interpretations, combining socially available ideas, categories and tools in new combinations or, less often, developing entirely new frames for understanding events. This seems to have occurred quite early in relation to narratives about the economic impact of the pandemic. In the UK a major shift in thinking about the role of the state in supporting employees and firms seems to have happened quite quickly in the Treasury, despite a strong political orientation towards small government in the party in power. However, such shifts have been much slower in the USA and in the UK in relation to developing a testing regime and supply chains for vital equipment.
Just as the abandonment of old frames is an emotional as well as a cognitive challenge, so too is development of conviction in plans for action under new frames. This is often the point where uncertainty is felt most keenly and shared meaning most in question. Again, how emotions are managed is of vital importance. Stories about how to interpret and respond to events are developed. These stories draw on many different components, including locally valued models, calculations, logics and analogies. Each of the narrative elements evoke not just thoughts but feelings. In conditions of uncertainty, there is no optimal solution. What is important for the development of conviction is not just what is thought to be right but what feels right, what the psychologist Jerome Bruner(2) describes as ‘verisimilitude’ or felt truth.
These stories develop through social debate and multiple factors come together in evaluating narrative elements and developing a sense of felt truth. These include familiarity, congruency with existing ways of thinking, legitimacy with relevant social groups, trust in sources, accessibility and fluency. Studying how fund managers and other financial market actors develop narratives about investment plans, David Tuckett (4,5) and colleagues showed how the balance of approach and avoidance emotions played a key role in this evaluation of narrative elements; leading to a preferred narrative in which approach emotions predominate. In the face of uncertainty, these ‘conviction narratives’ restore meaning and support conviction in planned action. However, just as in the problem of over attachment to ‘sticky frames’ how we manage ambivalence (the simultaneous experience of positive and negative thoughts and emotions), about planned action, is important.
The role of constructive ambivalence and doubt
“I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”Keats (3)
In social science accounts of ambivalence, it has often been construed as a condition to be avoided. It is often an unpleasant experience, evoking anxiety, especially when the objects of ambivalence are important to us. The ways in which we defend against the anxiety that it provokes can produce cognitive inflexibility and polarisation of opinions. However, we are increasingly coming to understand the positive role that experienced ambivalence can play when such defensive responses are avoided and ambivalence is not repressed but approached in a spirit of open curiosity. In these conditions there is building evidence that maintaining and tolerating ambivalence can support greater cognitive flexibility, creativity, breadth of attention and more effective consideration of divergent perspectives (6), and ‘mindful organising’ (7).
If ambivalence is repressed, and we avoid mixed emotions, new narratives solve uncertainty by generating selective attention to information which supports them, via the attentional role of emotions. For example, we become tied up in the ‘predictions’ of new models of the evolution of the pandemic, disregarding the major uncertainties in their explicit and implicit assumptions, or we disregard the major uncertainties about human behaviour in models and narratives about exit strategies. Emotions play an important and often subtle and unnoticed role in how we attend to and weight events, perspectives and information.
In conditions of uncertainty, sucessesful anticipatory thinking is less about having the ‘right’ story and making predictions than the range of perspectives and information we search for and pay attention to in updating understandings of an unfolding situation. Tolerating ambivalence and ‘not knowing’ plays a key role in maintaining openness to and generating new information, including weak signals. In contrast, avoiding ambivalence leads to overcommitment to preferred narratives, and a failure to notice the provisionality of the social facts we construct. As we move as a society to construct narratives about exit routes from the policies adopted to mitigate health and economic harms, our capacity to maintain constructive ambivalence will be crucial.
Supporting constructive ambivalence
How can constructive ambivalence be supported? This is especially pertinent in the political arena, where politicians often believe that projecting confidence and certainty is vital to maintaining public trust and support.
First, recognising that acting in the face of uncertainty is an emotional as well as a cognitive challenge, decision-makers need social and emotional support, that recognises both the challenges and value of maintaining constructive ambivalence whilst still acting.
Second, it is not just individual mindsets that matter but also organisational routines. Decision support processes also need to support ambivalence and multiple perspectives. For example, the New York Fed has established an Applied Critical Thinking Unit. This unit reports directly to the bank president with a brief to surface doubts about assumptions being made in key policy decision-making processes.
Finally, there is some good news for political leaders. There is research which suggests , especially in conditions of a shared vantage point with followers, that leaders who cultivate and express mixed emotion are not only more cognitively flexible but held in higher regard by their followers (8).
- Heisenberg, W. (1958). Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science. Lectures delivered at University of St. Andrews, Scotland. New York: Harper & Row (h/t to @Gerald_Ashley for reminding me of this quote).
- Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Keats, J., & Milnes, R. M. 1848. Life, letters, and literary remains, of John Keats. New York: GP Putnam.
- Tuckett, D. 2011. Minding the markets: An emotional finance view of financial instability. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Tuckett, D. 2014. Uncertainty, conflict and divided states: Some psychological foundations for macroprudential policy, Interdisciplinary workshop on the role of uncertainty in central bank policy. Bank of England.
- Rothman, N. B., Pratt, M. G., Rees, L., & Vogus, T. J. 2017. Understanding the dual nature of ambivalence: Why and when ambivalence leads to good and bad outcomes. Academy of Management Annals, 11(1): 33-72.
- Vogus, T. J., Rothman, N. B., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Weick, K. E. (2014). The affective foundations of high‐reliability organizing. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 35(4), 592-596.
- Rothman, Naomi B., and Shimul Melwani. “Feeling mixed, ambivalent, and in flux: The social functions of emotional complexity for leaders.” Academy of Management Review 42.2 (2017): 259-282.