Why does it feel so hard these days to make decisions? And, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, why do so many of those decisions leave us feeling guilty, whichever path we take?
Most of us want to avoid guilt; we are motivated to act in a “prosocial” way, a way that benefits not just ourselves but others. But often, we have conflicting options with no clear and correct response. Sometimes, the outcome that is good for our partner is not good for our child. Or a decision in line with our values of honesty and fairness may conflict with our value of protecting someone.
The ever-changing social, political and scientific landscape of COVID has added enormous uncertainty to our decision-making. Wondering whether people will be wearing masks at a gathering, or how infectious the latest variants of the virus are, can lead us to freeze. The pandemic has demonstrated how external challenges can dramatically impact our routine decision-making processes, turning a weekly trip to the grocery store into a moral dilemma.
In my experience as a psychologist, I have seen that there are ways to manage the complex emotions that pandemic decision-making stirs up. But before I get to that, let’s talk a bit about emotions and behavior, and how COVID has upended much of what we know.
Psychological research shows that much of our behavior is habitual. We have everyday routines for what we wear, what we eat and how to get places. But with COVID, people’s routines are new and changing, and the accompanying decisions often seem loaded with potentially negative outcomes: “I could be exposed to the virus, I could become sick, I could pass it on to my immunocompromised family member.” Vaccination does not erase all risk nor has it returned life to prepandemic conditions. It makes sense to be cautious about contracting or spreading SARS-CoV-2.
At the same time, most of us have experienced how draining decision-making can be and realize our mental energy is limited. Weighing caution regarding disease risk against other negative possibilities—such as young children’s reduced time with peers and the implication of that for happiness and development—and determining “safe enough” compromises costs us cognitive power. Coupled with news that evokes strong emotions—from the war in Ukraine to mass shootings to recent Supreme Court decisions—our cognitive capacities are stretched. When we no longer have routines to fall back on and our emotions are elevated, every decision we have to make comes at a greater mental cost to ourselves. Add in the fact that the information we use to make decisions keeps changing, and it’s no wonder even the little things feel hard.
Pandemic aside, we aren’t consistently rational decision-makers even at the best of times; research has repeatedly shown that people don’t always carefully weigh all possible outcomes and come to a “best” decision. Our biases, along with known cognitive shortcuts (such as relying on examples that easily come to mind rather than actual probabilities; for instance, people remember plane crashes and dismiss the regularity of fatal car crashes), lead us to omit some relevant factors (COVID infection is serious but not fatal in most instances). And these factors have varying levels of emotional meaning for us. Thus, emotions are part of our decision-making, too.
So, here we are, struggling with decisions for which there are no perfect answers, overwhelmed with uncertainty, struggling to sort through information, compartmentalizing or processing difficult information, trying to do our best day to day. We are grappling with the impact of public health restrictions that have reduced the spread of COVID but have affected communities in numerous ways, particularly children.
What do we do?
Short-term guilt can be unpleasant and interfere in our decision-making, our connections with others, or other aspects of day-to-day life. But pervasive feelings of guilt can be linked to longer-term problems. For example, among those with post-traumatic stress disorder, guilt is linked to greater severity of PTSD. So, it’s important to investigate why we behave as we do, and why we feel the way we do about it.
Given our various values, we have to recognize that we can’t satisfy all of them with each decision: “I can’t reduce all risk of COVID exposure and at the same time ensure my children can engage in typical childhood activities.”
Guilt is one of the myriad emotions humans feel. Naming an emotion—and recognizing why we feel it—helps us not be ruled by that emotion. Instead, it allows us to make more balanced decisions. It gets us closer to accepting that we are making the best choice possible with the information we have available. And we are making that choice in the context of significant uncertainty and potential cognitive overload.
It’s also important to acknowledge that we can’t predict or control the future. Once that future arrives, we might wish we had acted differently, but decisions (and people) are imperfect. Feeling guilt about each “what-if” before it occurs won’t change the future. Instead, a more useful mindset can be focusing on the positive outcomes we are hoping for—for example, connecting with a loved one—rather than the negative outcomes we fear, such as dying from COVID. That serves to align our thinking with our values and explains why we made the decision we did.
And if that what-if does happen, and we have actually harmed someone? Acknowledge what happened and our role, ask for forgiveness, including of ourselves, alleviate some of the harm when possible and commit to doing better going forward. Being compassionate toward ourselves, as we try to give others the same grace to be imperfect, can release some of the guilt. We are all works in progress, imperfect, doing the best we can.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.