How brands should respond when people overweigh an uncertain future

Guest Column: Apoorv Chitnis, Strategist at Sideways, says all information in Covid times can be classified under four types of certainties

e4m by Apoorv Chitnis
Updated: Jun 11, 2020 7:37 AM
COVID-19

A recent article from WARC shed light on interesting human behaviour during lockdown. It said ‘during the early stages of the pandemic in China, people spent more time doing stuff they are good at, for example, cooking dishes they already know. This is a display of a psychological need to enhance control over small aspects of their lives to reduce uncertainties’.

According to psychology, we repulse uncertainty because information is rewarding and lack of it seems like threat to life.

A recent study from Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot (Israel) discussed about how incessant face touching observed in people is a sign of humans constantly but subconsciously trying to smell themselves. By doing so they are essentially trying to know where their hands have been – a behaviour carried through primitive stages of human evolution as a way of gaining information.

We are victims of information craving, as Jonah Lehrer explains - we crave for information for the sake of it.

That is why we find ourselves reading up on multiple news, and expert opinions related to Covid-19. Sometimes that information doesn't make us more effective or adaptive, it simply reduces a sense of uncertainty. It is about the burst of dopamine we get when a circuit is completed.

Our certainties are important to us because they are made of our iceberg beliefs, those big, bone-deep assumptions we have about way the world works.

When we find ourselves in the times of high uncertainty, we feel we are losing control.

In such times, understanding the extent of uncertainty and crafting a limited yet appropriate response can be rewarding. Taking inspiration from Johari Window – a psychological framework - we can classify all information in Covid times across four types of certainties (or uncertainties).

THE GIVEN (Known to me, known to others)

This information is the most credible amongst all four types. Yet it will seem unpleasant due to its limited nature. For example, information on government declared dates of the lockdown or financial aid announced so far. Also, as this limited information will be anticipated for ramifications in the future, it will likely exert more pressure than provide relief. Realising that this is not ideal but it is the best you can get now, will help businesses in aligning for shorter timeframes with certain measures.

THE ADVANTAGE (Known to me, not known to others)

This information may consist of valuable intrinsic business realities and industry insights that no one else has. It is valuable as in the sea of speculative and broad expert opinions, you have something that you truly believe in. Businesses should use this information to make their scenario planning richer. But they must also consider sharing it with those may get benefitted from knowing it like industry peers, investors or customers.

THE OPPORTUNITY (Not known to me, known to others)

This is the area of blind spots. For example, had businesses from other countries monitored and studied situation in China about spread of the virus vis-à-vis impact on businesses, they would have been better prepared to mitigate the risks when the virus landed in their country. Going forward, they have now started watching out how China is coping up with post lockdown challenges.

The task here is to seek new knowledge, not just from economic and industry pundits but those who are far from it. Sometimes, they may be better advisers due to their detachment with your industry. This is an opportunity for exploration through cross-pollination of learnings from what remains unknown to you for now.

THE SURPRISE (Not known to me, not known to others)

This black box of information is the most pervasive information type during Covid times. The psychological concept of hindsight bias says that we tend to create the illusion that everything in our past was certain, when in reality, it was once uncertain. The fact that we stand here now is the proof that we are strong enough to make it through.

We are engineered to repulse high uncertainty, which explains why we prefer things we know over things that might be more fun, or better for us, but are new and therefore uncertain. It explains why we prefer the certainty of focusing on problems and finding answers in data from the past, rather than risking the uncertainty of new, creative solutions.

This information is absolutely unknown, so we must be patient for it to emerge through one of previous three types of information. We can increase the likelihood of anticipating and preparing for it by working collaboratively within and across industries.

Ultimately, we should get healthy dope of dopamine, through knowing, sharing and collaborating. This will help us gain more certainty and not lose sleep over losing control.

 Apoorv Chitnis is a Strategist at Sideways. Views expressed are his own.

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