How Schemas Help Us Make Sense of the Uncertain

Insights |

In moments of uncertainty, it is best to take a step a back and think about why things are happening. For most of us, COVID-19 presents the world with more questions and uncertainty than we have ever experienced.

While many may feel that what we are learning about society is fractured and happenstance, a great number of the things consumers, government, and businesses are talking about are firmly based in behavioral/psychological foundations and can help inform both our near-term and long-term communications strategies.

In light of that, and as we enter into the fourth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, Edelman Intelligence has returned to our roots in behavioral psychology to try to better understand how people are reacting to the world and what we can learn from them.

It all comes down to schemas…

People tend to make decisions based on schemas (or mental framework based on former experience) that we default to as a means of moving about the world more quickly and easily. Right now, most people seem to be operating with a “natural disaster” schema to process COVID-19, primarily evidenced by the emotional need to stockpile certain items (e.g., toilet paper, canned goods, flour, etc.). Particularly in Western countries, which were not greatly impacted by the SARS or Ebola epidemics, people are facing a new reality they’ve never experienced before and rely on what they know to inform their response.

This “natural disaster” response is further exacerbated by the negative impact of influence (colloquially known as “echo chambers”) on social and traditional media that reinforce fear and concern and the visual cues we see every day representing scarcity (e.g., empty roads, bare supermarket shelves, etc.).

Keeping the “natural disaster” schema in mind, we find that effective messaging at this time will either need to provide an answer to scarcity (both in message and visuals), console a worried public as you would in a natural disaster, and/or slow down the decision making process by allowing people more time for cognitive processing.

Moving from “I” to “We”

We continue to be in a stabilizing time period as more and more people self-isolate because of government mandated social distancing requirements. This transitory period has been marked by people holding out as long as they can – some continuing to go to the beach on spring break or having friends over for quarantine parties. 

Even as social distancing becomes a temporary norm across the majority of society, we will most likely feel a longer-term impact of “reactance.”

Reactance theory is the idea that when we’re told we can’t do X, we only want to do X. This is felt most strongly in societies where individual freedom is a deeply held and cherished ideal (e.g., the U.S.) – or, in other words, among cultures and people who place a higher value on individualism over collectivism.

Even as people become more accustomed to social distancing, this does not mean they will eventually support it. Many may actually start (or have already started) feeling victimized because they were “forced” to distance – especially as the negative economic or personal impact of social distancing becomes more pronounced. In these cases, we may see a shift among certain audiences from opposition to social distancing towards aggression directed at those who made them do it. This may be especially true among those who are applying the “natural disaster” schema as it means they do not perceive social isolation as completely necessary.

Applying reactance to the “natural disaster” schema continues to call for a need in messaging or discussion (especially in Western cultures) that emphasize the importance of the collective (e.g., virtual rallies, vigils, family togetherness, Netflix/Nintendo/Zoom hangouts) as well as those that help people looking for new opportunities find a renewed sense of normal or reclaim some of what they have lost (e.g., exploring passions, reskilling/upskilling in the job market, educating or caring for children).

Schemas vs. core beliefs

While they are by no means perfect, schemas evolve, learn, and change over time. As we receive new information, we update our schemas and evolve our reactions. That being so, our core values and our sense of identity do not change as frequently.

The things that people cared about before COVID-19 remain the same things that they care about today. People still want to see pictures of each other’s pets on social media, they get excited about what kind of future we could live in, they rally and fight for things like sustainability and healthcare reform. One true and meaningful connection between COVID-19 and a “natural disaster” schema is that not only should everyone do what they can to make the current time better, but we should also be working to build a world that we can look forward to.

We know people are looking for companies to partner together and with other key trusted spokespeople—whether that be politicians, scientists, non-profit leaders, or healthcare professionals. We know that people want to hear from business leaders about how they will continue to provide jobs for people in the future or rebuild the economy. We also know that most companies shouldn’t be looking to change their core beliefs or their entire social purpose because of this particular global health crisis.

Putting it All together

In short, although COVID-19 is truly an unprecedented time in our lives, we believe one thing remains true: by first understanding why people do the things they do, we can better understand how to respond. For us, this means taking a step back to see when we can help people slow their knee-jerk reactions, how we can better understand the ways in which business leaders can affect positive change, and what true partnership can do to find hope in a time that may feel very hopeless.

Brandon Parrott-Sheffer is a Senior Vice President.

Daria Bakina Ph.D. is a Senior Research Manager.

Michelle Clements is a Research Director

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