A few weeks ago, I wrote about a decision making framework for all things COVID-19 (to summarize: frame question, mitigate risk, evaluate risk, evaluate benefits, decide). More details here.
As I have reflected more on this, I have started thinking about the importance of consistency in decisions. One of the hallmarks of good, effective, decision-making is to be consistent. That means, among other things, making decisions and sticking to them.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this in the context of parenting when I was writing Cribsheet. A central argument of that book is that making decisions thoughtfully and sticking to them is key to happy parenting. If you are confident in the choices you’ve made, there is less temptation to alter them because of, say, some judgement from a nosy playground parent.
For me, this was most stark in the case of sleep training (that is: letting my kids cry-it-out until they fell asleep, to help them learn to sleep on their own. Yes, I know this is controversial and I spend a lot of time on our decision process in the book). It’s very hard to let your kid cry.
Especially with our first child, during this process I would frequently suggest that we change our approach. When I did, my husband, Jesse, would ask me some version of: “Why? We made this decision, why do you want to change it?” He pushed relentlessly for consistency (Jesse is the most consistent and principled person I know. It’s mostly for the good).
Why do I bring this up now? It’s been on my mind because part of what I think is making this current phase of COVID-19 difficult for many of us is the lack of consistency we see broadly, and in our own thinking.
Only six weeks ago, were wiping down our groceries and crossing the street when we saw another (masked) pedestrian. Now we are contemplating seeing our elderly parents for a meal in a restaurant. At the start of the pandemic we were committed to staying home at all costs. Now we are contemplating whether we’ll get caught if we jump the playground fence with our two year (SERIOUSLY, THEY REALLY REALLY WANT THE PLAYGROUND.) Policymakers seem to be changing their guidelines just as rapidly.
It’s not obviously wrong to change our decisions, or even to change them in a short period. But just like with making the decisions in the first place, we should be thoughtful about it. And this got me thinking about a second phase of the decision framework.
Imagine you ask not “What is the right decision?” but, instead, “I’m thinking of changing my decision? How do I know if that’s a good idea?” I’m thinking about COVID-19 but, really, I could have written this about sleep training.
In either case, I’d argue it comes down to thinking about the simple question: What Changed? That is: if it’s a good idea to change your decision, you must think something has changed. And, you should be able to articulate what it is.
In the specific case of COVID-19, there really aren’t that many possibilities.
Option 1: Change in Infection Rates Easiest thing to think about. The magnitude of infection risk scales with the share of other people infected. If infection rates go down, you are should be on average less cautious. Maybe when 20% of people being tested were positive, I was more wary about grocery shopping than I am when only 5% of those tested are positive.
Option 2: Change in Personal Disease Risk There might also be a change in what we know about the virus. For example, maybe we’ve learned something new about risk factors. Maybe it turns out you (or your loved ones, or others you’d interact with) are at lower risk than you thought.
Option 3: Change in Benefits When you think about choices in the era of COVID-19, one piece of the puzzle is the benefits of engaging in various activities. You may find these change over time. For example, I think many of underestimated the mental health costs — to us, our parents, our kids — of the isolation. Over the last six weeks, my estimation of the benefits of having children in school or child care have dramatically increased. That weighs against the risks. Even if I think the risks are the same, I might make a different choice.
Option 4: You were wrong. Despite your best decision-making efforts, maybe you were just wrong before. This is the stickiest, and most nebulous reason for changing your mind. And if that’s the reason…you want to really think about what you did wrong. Saying, “Well, I was wrong before” is a way to defend changing your mind, but not a principled one. So think about it: were you really wrong? Should you have made the choice differently before?
To take an example. Imagine six weeks ago you refused to a weekend visit to your parents house with your three and five year old. At the time, you felt that was the obvious and appropriate choice.
Now, you’re thinking about doing it. The question to ask is: why might things be different now? One option is you perceive the risk of disease to be lower than it was. Certainly, in most locations COVID-19 rates have fallen. (Although the truth is that if you were isolating six weeks ago and you are isolating now, it’s not obvious the actual infection risk differs very much.)
You may have learned that your parents are lower risk than you thought. Maybe they turn out to have already had it and have antibodies (unlikely outside of New York City, but possible). Or, maybe, you think we’ve learned more about risk factors. (I would caution though our evidence on this hasn’t improved as much as we hoped. For example: you may have heard that bald men are more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and rejoiced that your dad has hair. Unfortunately, that study didn’t adjust for age, which is known to relate to both baldness and COVID-19 severity).
My guess is that for most people considering changing this particular decision, it may simply be that you didn’t realize how much your kids missed their grandparents or how much the grandparents missed your kids. Or how much you missed the child care. This is a good reason to change your mind. But it is useful to articulate this as the reason. Among other things, if you are changing your mind for these benefits-oriented reasons but the risk has stayed the same, you will want to continue to be as vigilant (or more) about trying to mitigate risk.
Changing your mind is part of being human. And in some unimportant situations — choosing your lunch, or what to wear, or what book to read — “just because I want to” is a fine reason. But in the case of these weighty decisions — in COVID-19 or in parenting or elsewhere — pausing to ask why can sometimes lead to better decisions.
When we were sleep training our daughter, Jesse paused to ask why. And when I tried to explain, I realized I hadn’t changed my mind about the benefits (large), or the risks (none). I was just finding it much harder than I thought to experience. But that realization turned out to present a better solution (specifically, I left the house). The solution to your COVID-19 questions will probably not be “leave the house” but you never know what you might come up with.