IF THERE’S ONE defining feature of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s uncertainty. Will there be a vaccine? When can schools safely reopen? Will I still have a job next week? Should I book a spring vacation abroad? A crisis that we’d all hoped would be short-lived is dragging on indefinitely, and the list of unanswered questions keeps growing.“I’ve started thinking about our current situation as being marked by two pandemics,” Kate Sweeny says. “The viral one, of course, but also a psychological pandemic of uncertainty.” A professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, Sweeny specializes in understanding how people cope with ambiguity. All her research points towards one conclusion: We don’t cope very well.
“Waiting periods are marked by two existentially challenging states: We don’t know what’s coming, and we can’t do much about it,” Sweeny explains. “Together, those states are a recipe for anxiety and worry. People would often rather deal with the certainty of bad news than the anxiety of remaining in limbo.”
That’s what researchers at three institutions in the UK found in a 2013 experiment, when they attached electrodes to 35 subjects and asked them to choose between receiving a sharp shock immediately or waiting for a milder one. The vast majority chose the more painful option, just to get it out of the way. “It’s counterintuitive,” admits Giles Story, one of the academics behind the study. “But it’s a testament to how anxiety-inducing and miserable it can be to have things looming in the future.”
It may be counterintuitive, but it’s actually something we see play out again and again in the scientific literature. Whether it’s receiving a cancer diagnosis, finding out a round of IVF was unsuccessful, or discovering that you failed an exam, for many of us, unequivocally bad news is easier to deal with than the ambiguous waiting period that precedes it. Knowing what we’re dealing with, even if it’s crappy, gives us some agency. Uncertainty leaves us scrambling to regain an element of control—by hoarding toilet paper, for example.
Ironically, while actions like these might provide temporary relief, they can have the opposite effect in the long term, sending our anxiety levels through the roof. “People who struggle with uncertainty engage in behaviors to try to feel more certain, like taking their temperature repeatedly,” says Ryan Jane Jacoby, a staff psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “But these actions only serve to perpetuate uncertainty in the long run, and they can really take a toll on your mental health, as they start to take up more time and energy.”