Academic Minute Podcast

Elizabeth Tricomi, Rutgers University Newark – Pandemic Decision-Making is Difficult and Exhausting

If you’ve been feeling extra tired during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re not alone.

Elizabeth Tricomi, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University – Newark, examines why this may be.

Elizabeth Tricomi received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006. Her dissertation research focused on how the brain responds to positive and negative feedback during learning. She then did a postdoctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology, where she studied behavioral economics and neuroeconomics—the science of how people make decisions, and the brain mechanisms involved in decision making. She joined the faculty in the Psychology Department at Rutgers University-Newark in 2009, and she was promoted to Associate Professor in 2016. Research in her lab investigates how motivation and information influence learning and decision making.

Pandemic Decision-Making is Difficult and Exhausting


Do decisions about when to wear a mask and whether to go to events make you feel exhausted? If so, your decision fatigue can make you feel overwhelmed and lead to bad decisions. People find pandemic-related decisions difficult because they involve risk and uncertainty. Risk refers to a known probability of an outcome, such as the likelihood of rolling a 1 on a 20-sided die. Uncertainty involves unknown probabilities—for example, you can’t know the exact chance of catching COVID by engaging in a particular activity. People tend to be both risk-averse and uncertainty-averse, which means that you likely avoid both when you can.

Trying to think through the probability of catching a virus, or of that virus leading to a serious outcome, is hard. So, people tend to think in terms of binaries, such as “safe” or “unsafe” — because that’s easier.

This strategy can lead to cognitive biases, which are errors in thought that impact our decision-making3. For example, you may find yourself making decisions based on individual cases rather than on overall trends. You might judge whether going to a concert is “safe” based on whether your friend caught COVID at a recent concert, for instance. You may also think more about the risks of catching COVID than about other risks that life entails, that receive less media attention.

During this next phase of the pandemic, we recommend remembering that uncertainty is a part of life. If you attend a concert, only to end up contracting COVID there, it doesn’t mean you made the wrong decision – it just means you rolled the dice and came up short.

On the flip side, if you attend and don’t end up with COVID, don’t get too smug: another time, the outcome might be different. All you can do is try to make the best decisions you can. Be kind to yourself and others, as we all make our choices.


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