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By being honest, leaders can improve the public’s resistance to disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Uncertainty can make us act like rats on meth. No, really. It's not hyperbole. By leaving us in the dark, leaders increase uncertainty, which affects how we think and behave.
Uncertainty can make us act like rats on meth.
A 2020 study found that "Methamphetamine exposure made rats behave like humans with high paranoia.”1 Uncertainty can come from a disaster, the chaos following a terrorist attack, or it can come from a highly consequential event with an unknown outcome, like an election.
Uncertainty has such a negative effect that it can be more distressing than the actual negative event that worries us. In a study, researchers had two groups of participants.
One group knew whether they would get shocked, but the other only knew it might happen. Those who didn’t know whether they would be shocked felt more pain than those told definitively they were getting shocked. The shock was the same, but the experience was not.
Information makes the difference. People have a right to accurate information about circumstances and choices facing them. They can also handle it; we should factor that into the calculus of what to share. Instinct often tempts leaders to fear that the public will panic. It may even be well-meaning, but either way, it is also paternalistic and condescending.
Panic is rare. Fear of it does not justify withholding information.
Panic — as we speak of it in popular culture — is often someone responding to fear because of insufficient or conflicting information. When a person urinates uncontrollably, or someone’s body freezes up, leaving them in the way of an oncoming train, that is panic.
Disaster communicators stress that fear of panic can be misguided, harmful, and may violate a person’s right to accurate information needed to make decisions about his or her life.
After five decades studying scores of disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tornadoes, one of the strongest findings is that people rarely lose control.
— Lee Clark, 20022
When leaders talk about panic, they frequently mean behaviors that the public undertakes in response to information about a crisis or the potential for a problem in the near future. When we fear that leaders are not telling us the truth or doubt we have been protected from a threat, we listen to our instinct to survive. That’s not panic. It’s the predictable consequence of a communication failure. Stockpiling or behaving in other ways to ensure your survival is logical.
Consider how you might act if you didn’t know whether you were being told the truth and were unsure that anyone would protect you. Would you do nothing and accept what you perceive to be a real risk that you are harmed?
Assume the public, or even your family and friends, can handle bad news. What leaders perceive as a potential for public panic might say more about how the leader feels than it does the people they serve.
Leaders withholding information may increase the public’s susceptibility to disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Putting quality information out quickly is only part of the struggle. New evidence may not stick.3 Eliminate or minimize uncertainty—even if that means sharing bad news—and people’s experience and ability to think critically may improve.
In the time it takes for credible reporting to debunk a lie or for leaders to have answers, people will look for answers. We are not necessarily good at weighing information and will look even if credible information is absent.4 The information seeking can overwhelm us or allow disinformation to be the first message, giving bad actors an edge over credible sources.
The effect that the absence of information may have on the public can be illustrated by the findings of the aforementioned Yale study. Researchers had people with various levels of nonclinical paranoia5 (degree of suspiciousness) play a card game.
Grouped by the degree of suspiciousness, the two groups’ reactions differed as they played a card game. The group with less suspiciousness learned more from the consequences of their actions in the game and made logical moves.
The low-paranoia group's behavior changed when researchers introduced uncertainty into the game. They began to behave more like those who were more likely to be suspicious of others, even though the uncertainty was neither long-term nor life-threatening. Still, it changed their behavior and reduced their ability to learn from previous rounds in the game.
Changes like these during a crisis may make us more receptive to conspiracy theories and disinformation. Think of a crisis like an additional growing season. A conspiracy theory that finds its way into the mind of someone during an unpredictable time may have a greater chance of taking root. If you plant a seed during a growing season versus the winter, the chance that the seed takes root and grows is not equal.
By being honest, leaders may increase the public’s resistance to disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Erin J Reed, Stefan Uddenberg, Praveen Suthaharan, Christoph D Mathys, Jane R Taylor, Stephanie Mary Groman, Philip R Corlett (2020) Paranoia as a deficit in non-social belief updating eLife 9:e56345. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.56345
Clarke, L. (2002). Panic: Myth or Reality? Contexts, 1(3), 21–26. https://doi.org/10.1525/ctx.2002.1.3.21
Ambuehl, S., & Li, S. (2018). Belief updating and the demand for information. Games and Economic Behavior, 109, 21–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geb.2017.11.009
CDC. (2020, February 25). Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC). https://emergency.cdc.gov/cerc/manual/index.asp
Boyd, D., & Golebiewski, M. (2019, October 29). Data Voids. Data & Society; Data & Society Research Institute. https://datasociety.net/library/data-voids/
Shane, T. (2020). People are using Facebook and Instagram as search engines. During a pandemic, that’s dangerous. Nieman Lab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2020/08/people-are-using-facebook-and-instagram-as-search-engines-during-a-pandemic-thats-dangerous/
“Paranoia” in this text does not reference clinical paranoia but “suspicion and mistrust of people or their actions without evidence or justification.”
Persons with nonclinical paranoia show many of the same biases as those with clinical paranoia, suggesting that paranoia exists on a continuum. However, little is known about the various social cognitive processes found in paranoia and how these relate to social functioning and social behaviors in general.
Dennis R. Combs, Jacob A. Finn, Whitney Wohlfahrt, David L. Penn & Michael R. Basso (2013) Social cognition and social functioning in nonclinical paranoia, Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 18:6, 531-548, DOI: 10.1080/13546805.2013.766595