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Ignoring the facts? Why we turn to gut instinct in moments of crisis

Ignoring the facts? Why we turn to gut instinct in moments of crisis

How do people react in moments of crisis? According to researchers, we tend to trust stories over the facts.

Ignoring the facts? Why we turn to gut instinct in moments of crisis

The decision-making aspect of human behaviour was analysed by two researchers at The University of Texas Arlington.

The study, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, found that when it comes to making decisions in times of anxiety and vulnerability, people are more likely to base them on anecdotal information rather than facts.

Associate professors Traci Freling and Ritesh Saini who conducted the study said that when emotions run high – like in the current coronavirus pandemic – people turn to personal stories over facts to make their decisions.

“We found that people are more likely to consider personal anecdotes than fact-based information, especially when it deals with medical emergencies,” said Freling.

“They are especially dismissive of facts if the incident is something they personally experienced,” she added. “Specifically, we show that when an issue is health-related, personally relevant or highly threatening, then decision-making is compromised and people tend to rely on anecdotes.”

Freling use the example of the panic-buying of toilet paper to show how people react without listening to facts. It demonstrates, explains Freling, how consumers can rely more heavily on subjective information rather than statistical facts, especially when feeling vulnerable and afraid.

On the flip side, when emotional engagement is low, people take factual evidence more seriously.

“When there is low-threat severity or it’s a non-health issue, people tend to take cold, hard facts into account rather than personal accounts and stories,” said Freling.

Another interesting finding from the study is that people tend to make more fact-based decisions when choosing for others, but are more irrational when choosing for themselves.

Elten Briggs, chair of the Department of Marketing, said the analysis could prove valuable when it comes to decision-making processes during medical crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Their research provides guidance on how to craft more influential messaging during times like these, when anxiety is heightened for so many people,” Briggs said.

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