One day, a year ago, my children came home from school and never went back. First we thought they’d be home for a few weeks. Then “a few weeks” stretched into the summer. Fall came, and my youngest had her first day of kindergarten in the living room. There was no choice in the matter. My district simply wasn’t offering in-person school. Like many families across the country, we made do, patching holes in our sanity with a nanny, a grandmother and some very understanding bosses.
And then, in late January, we were finally given a choice — and I was a mess. Having the ability to make my own decision was every bit as hard as living with a choice somebody else made for me.
Dr. Anthony Fauci on President Donald Trump’s pandemic approach | FiveThirtyEight
I still don’t know if I made the right call about my kids and in-person schooling — and that’s even after I made the decision twice (as of this writing, anyway). First I chose not to send them back. Then, several weeks later, the opposite. Neither decision comes with guarantees for the health of my kids, or my family or anyone else’s. Both choices have forced me to make assumptions about facts I can’t prove, guidelines I can’t police and the decisions of dozens of other people I have no control over. And I am painfully aware that the facts guiding this decision are a moving target. In the end, I will probably judge whether or not I’ve made the right choice based on whether or not we get sick — an outcome that isn’t necessarily connected to the choice in any causal way.
“To school or not to school” is just one of the dozens, maybe hundreds, of fraught and fuzzy decisions you and I have made over the course of the Pandemic Year. The stakes are high, the information is limited, and the questions pile up like laundry in the hamper — routine and never-ending.
What counts as outdoor dining? Can I visit that friend? What kind of mask should I wear? Should my groceries be delivered? Does hand sanitizer matter? Should I open a window? Which vaccine should I get? Is my pod too big? We open tabs upon tabs of research we only partly understand. Our minds boggle at the choices of others. There is a bucket in our heads that is always at least partially filled with the flotsam of pandemic decision-making, and even when it’s only a couple inches deep, we are drowning in it.
The danger of all these decisions isn’t just that we might choose … poorly. It’s that we have to do this much choosing at all.
Scientists refer to the problem as “cognitive load,” but that’s just a fancy way to say that your brain can really only do so many things at once — and there are consequences to overloading it. Try to do too much, and you will damage your mental health and, ironically, impair your ability to make good decisions.
Humans butt up against these limitations in lots of different ways: Emergency-room doctors who are forced to make complex life-or-death decisions quickly and without enough sleep; people functioning on the ragged edge of the American economy, who have to carry bills and budgets around in their brains, knowing that a slipup or an unexpected expense could lead to ruin; and even students who find themselves overwhelmed with lots of new information and sharp consequences if they fail to master it quickly.
Now, all of society has known what that feels like. Every day. For a goddamn year.
It’s no wonder that polling about the return to in-person schooling ends up looking like a lot of Americans throwing their hands up in exhaustion. Different polls produce contradictory answers about the preferred choice. It’s exactly the kind of thing that years of research on cognitive overload would lead you to expect.
The more important the decisions, the more information we try to acquire. But the more information those decisions force us to carry around, the less able we are to make decisions at all. Our statistics skills falter. Our memories lapse. We lose our ability to look at situations analytically. That’s how we become more likely to make dangerous errors in judgement, like assuming the first solutions that come to mind are probably the right ones, or focusing on information that confirms our knee-jerk responses rather than on evidence that might force us to think more.
The clash between uncertainty and decision-making is also damaging our ability to navigate health information, even as that information has become particularly important. How do we know if we have the right, most-recent facts? How can we decide what is worth trusting and what isn’t? For some people, the result has been hours of life lost to sharing links that we haven’t really vetted. It’s “work” that helps us feel better in the moment, but doesn’t help us solve our problems. It’s no wonder, then, that recent research suggests there’s a link between cognitive overload during this pandemic and the spread of misinformation and unproductive doomscrolling.
Meanwhile, the act of choosing creates divergent paths whose outcomes can’t really be compared. But our brains, lost in the fog of cognitive overload, can’t see that. Experts say that some of the polarization around the pandemic response is likely linked to our brains’ inability to cope with the outcomes of all these choices we need to make.
Think about it this way: If you went to a summer barbeque and came away perfectly healthy, you probably believe that fears about big family gatherings are overblown. If you did the same thing, but 14 family members got sick and people died, you likely came away with a very different set of beliefs. What did happen is, essentially, random. But the varying outcomes can split people into hard, narrow paths of ideology about what should be done — and we no longer have the brain space to think our way to any other destination. We make our choices, and we have no way to judge whether they were the right ones — so our experiences and beliefs begin to split along chaotic crevasses of bad luck.
How White House economists are thinking about COVID-19 relief | FiveThirtyEight
Cognitive overload is usually thought about as an individual problem — a bad thing that happens to people in bad situations, one unfortunate soul at a time. But how it also affects broader polarization, and the spread of misinformation makes it obvious this isn’t just about individuals feeling yucky. A year of mass cognitive overload has consequences at a societal level — frayed ends that won’t stop unravelling just because people get vaccinated. All these little, dangerous decisions have upended our lives and relationships. They’ve changed how we relate to other Americans. And they’ve altered, probably forever, what we think about what our government can or will do in a crisis.
Let’s be clear that there is a limit to how helpful the government could have been this year. Some of our individual cognitive overload was unavoidable and not really anybody’s fault. Uncertainty is the heart of anxiety, and there was never any way for our leaders to be certain about every aspect of the pandemic response, especially early on when experts really had no clue what they were dealing with. That reality meant that even legitimate attempts to be helpful often came with their own cognitive load. For example, making individual decisions during this pandemic was always going to be exhausting — a fact you can see just by looking at well-meaning “decision-making tools” put out by state governments and independent experts. The state of Wisconsin’s COVID-19 decision tool is a massive list of difficult questions to ask yourself — a self-guided seminar in philosophy, ethics and medical science — that makes your cognitive load feel like a 10-ton anvil. Government could do this better, but we were never going to fully escape the burden.
But not all of this mess was fate. Even as evidence accumulated, the messaging remained contradictory and muddled. When is it safe to go back to school in person? Last summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out some checklists which didn’t really offer districts a clear path to that answer, then President Trump blasted them and demanded schools open, then the CDC put out another set of guidelines (edited by the White House) that seemed to gloss over any risk at all, then many states and districts left it up to parents to decide when it was time to send kids back without any metrics to judge that by. It wasn’t until February — and another set of new CDC guidelines published under the Biden administration — that parents were really given metrics to work from. Even then, the document was massive, the data you need to see if your district is meeting guidelines isn’t always available, and the Biden administration wants schools to reopen faster than what the CDC guidelines (strictly followed) would allow.
It’s almost as if the government itself, a set of institutions made up of individual humans after all, is suffering from the same cognitive load — and the same side effects — as individuals. The federal government spread misinformation while flailing and crashing through this china cabinet of a year, lost in its own exhaustion and anxiety. State governments, even the ones not actively making the spread of COVID-19 worse, weren’t much better. Instead of a cohesive plan and set goalposts we got governors and Trump showboating contradictory facts and trying to score zingers against each other. Instead of coherent frameworks that could have helped individuals know what “safer” looked like and empowered them to choose accordingly, we got ideological, all-or-nothing thinking and long nights of trying to piece together useful facts from news stories. Instead of leadership, we got a crash course in the futility and misery of trying to manage a systemic disaster via millions of disconnected individual choices.
Remember that last bit. A global pandemic is not the only time that’s true. As the planet warms, we are going to keep encountering disasters where solutions are presented as a false dichotomy: Either fix it by being free to make all the decisions yourself, or fix it by letting an authoritarian government tell you exactly what you have to do. The reality is that we can’t dramatically reduce the use of fossil fuels one household at a time any more than we can stop a pandemic by forcing every family to decide for themselves — with no expertise and little coherent information — what is safe and what isn’t. Without system-level support — information, transparency, policies that make it easier to choose hard but necessary things — individual decision-making is like the proverbial Dutch boy with his finger in the dike. Except that, in this version of the tale, he’s also slowly losing his mind.
Over the next few months, vaccination rates will rise, cases will almost certainly fall, and the burden of your cognitive load will get lighter. Someday soon — maybe summer, maybe fall — you’ll blink and find yourself wandering through a park without having to debate distance, masks and the social viability of hugs in your head. What a moment that will be: to live without having to think about how to live. In that moment, it will feel like you won. Like your own choices saved you, other people’s doomed them, and maybe it was even pretty easy to do the right thing.
But don’t forget how you really felt. How doubt kept you up at night and how tired you were of thinking. Remember all the times you couldn’t remember … that thing you’ve forgotten … and all the times you impulse yelled and impulse shopped. Remember how many times you just wanted help — not authoritarian, one-size solutions, just help — and how angry you were when, instead, you were expected to become an expert in seemingly everything. If only you were also given the time and energy to decipher who was lying, who was telling the truth and what the spectrum of “reasonable” even looked like.
Remember it all because we will be here again. There will be some other disaster. And next time, the only way we are going to avoid being crushed under cognitive overload is if we remember what this year did to us. And we start to demand something better.