We live in a constant state of uncertainty, but the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased the level of doubt that many individuals face every day, as well as overall uncertainty at the societal level. Acknowledging uncertainty is critical to coping with it and to messaging about crises, but also very challenging.
Extensive psychological research has shown that the human brain tends to have a strong aversion to doubt and complexity. Most people often grasp for answers that seem certain and clear. This is understandable, as the brain must filter and prioritize information in a complex world. However, the tendency to grasp for certainty and clarity also presents many problems, given the reality that we live in an uncertain and complicated world.
At the individual level, ignoring or denying uncertainty can have damaging mental health effects. Resisting uncertainty — when we cannot change it — creates more stress and anxiety. Also, some psychologists have noted that either denying uncertainty or allowing it to overwhelm us can lead to paralysis. In order to make good personal decisions, people need to honestly consider the reality that they face. Denying uncertainty or clinging to overly simplistic ideas robs a person of an opportunity to choose an effective path forward.
At the societal level, acknowledging uncertainty becomes even more complicated as well as more important. Governing and expert authorities that must communicate a message in a time of crisis and uncertainty face significant challenges.
There have been some studies on the effectiveness of different ways of communicating uncertainty around scientific topics, such as COVID-19 or climate change. The results are mixed. Some research suggests that offering best and worst-case scenarios can improve trust in the authority and acceptance of the message; the same research, however, suggests that acknowledging that there are some things we cannot know undermines the overall message.
Other research suggests that offering a spectrum of possibilities might undermine faith in the message. Some studies suggest that a more educated audience is better able to handle messages that include uncertainty, while other research suggests that educational level might not matter. However, it is clear that people who hear that something will happen, such as specific climate change impacts or projected COVID-19 deaths, will lose trust in the messenger if the prediction fails to come true.
This leaves governments, scientific authorities and communicators in a tricky situation. Many have long assumed that communicating any uncertainty undermines their message, and there is extensive public relations advice that recommends offering simple, clear messages with confidence.
While it is possible to provide simple, clear and confident messages while also recognizing a degree of uncertainty, doing so requires significant levels of nuance. Furthermore, some audiences prefer communicators who speak with absolute certainty, while other audiences will immediately reject those communicators as not credible.
For example, the US government has struggled under both the Trump and Biden administrations to communicate uncertainty about the pandemic and the withdrawal of military forces from Afghanistan. Donald Trump often made sweeping predictions about the pandemic that proved totally wrong.
The Biden administration has tried to stick closer to the scientific facts in communications about the pandemic, but has struggled with finding a balance between projecting confidence and uncertainty. The US is not alone in this; many governments have struggled with communicating about COVID-19, as scientific understanding shifts and the virus evolves.
Both administrations failed to communicate uncertainty about the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was initially planned under Trump and then switched to the Biden team. Biden administration officials did not prepare Americans or Afghans for the uncertainty of what would happen — both from events that were fairly easy to foresee, such as the failure to quickly provide visas to Afghan partners, and events that were more difficult to predict, such as the speed of the Taliban takeover.
The confident and positive statements coming from Washington before the withdrawal looked like incompetency or lies in the aftermath. Such events badly undermine trust between governments and citizens. Again, the US is hardly alone in this.
Fundamentally, communicators must build trust. They must find a balance between offering clear messages that do not provide people with too much complexity while also acknowledging uncertainty, especially in situations that are rapidly changing. Too much information can overwhelm people, leading them to reject the message and turn to disinformation, which often uses a confident and simplistic tone.
However, refusing to recognize uncertainty can undermine credibility and is especially damaging when it becomes necessary to change the message. For example, initial understandings of COVID-19 in the US suggested that cloth masks might not be helpful; as the reality of how the virus spreads and its ability to spread via asymptomatic people became clear, authorities had to change their recommendations. Such changes without preparing the audience for inevitable shifts undermine trust.
While much of the burden of managing such a difficult balance falls on communicators, communication is a two-way street. People who are receiving messages from governments and experts also need to accept that life is complex and uncertain. They need to be willing to hear from authorities that recommendations and projections might change in response to new information or shifts in a situation. They need to allow for occasional mistakes. If people insist on easy answers expressed with total confidence, there is not much communicators can do.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch
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