Healthy Mind

Anger? Exhaustion? Self-Doubt? The Psychological Implications of Mixed Messaging Is Making Our Brains Explode

Kells McPhillips

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If someone challenged me to describe 2020 in one adjective, I would go with confusing. The United States is smack-dab in the middle of an infodemic, wherein there’s an ever-changing narrative about how to stay safe as COVID-19 numbers continue to break records and politicians simultaneously rebuff medical expertise. For example, take the flip-flopping advice on whether or not to wear masks during recent months. The mixed messaging can feel like enough to break your brain (or wound it, at least), and, according to psychologists, you, yourself may even be complicit in worsening your confusion thanks to the natural tendency to use confirmation bias as a coping mechanism.

The myths surrounding the use of face masks is one plain-and-simple example of confirmation bias perpetuating public health crises. At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, the U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams, MD, MPH, warned the public to stop purchasing face masks, as the act could lead to PPE shortages for the medical community. By April, however, the newest science on COVID-19 led Dr. Adams to retract his statement. And now, of course, the general consensus within the medical community is to wear your darn mask. Not everyone will necessarily heed that message, however—and one reason why i because humans tend to conflate mixed messaging with what clinical psychologist Josh Klapow, PhD calls “evolving messaging.” And when we’re confused, confirmation bias sweeps in to save the day, as far as our confused minds are concerned, at least.

Confirmation bias, according to American Psychological Association (APA), is “the tendency to gather evidence that confirms preexisting expectations, typically by emphasizing or pursuing supporting evidence while dismissing or failing to seek contradictory evidence.” It’s a coping mechanism the brain uses to help us restore a comfortable state of order when mixed messaging comes in and defies the basic human need for order, says clinical psychologist Carla Manly, PhD.  “In general, humans strive to make sense of the world in order to feel safe. When mixed messages are given—whether by parents, friends, or the government—a sense of confusion and insecurity can arise,” she says.

“When mixed messages abound, the mind cannot readily sort which information is accurate and which is not. A state of stress can result; this often induces destabilizing feelings such as confusion, fear, anxiety, anger, and irritability.” —Carla Manly, PhD

On a neuroscientific level, the human brain simply isn’t equipped to process information efficiently when said information contradicts other stats and instructions simultaneously flying our way. That can, in effect, lead to emotional turmoil. “When mixed messages abound, the mind cannot readily sort which information is accurate and which is not,” Dr. Manly says. “When this occurs, a state of stress can result; this often induces destabilizing feelings such as confusion, fear, anxiety, anger, and irritability.” And that’s when many turn to confirmation bias to provide comfortable answers—but in practice, this can do more long-term harm than good.

“When there are multiple sources of differing information, confirmation bias gets stronger,” says Dr. Kaplow. “We have that confirmation bias because it makes us feel safe and secure in the world. We fundamentally want to believe that our thoughts are right and are predictable, so we tend to be biased toward those things that can follow what we believe.”

COVID-19 has raised the stakes on mixed messaging and the resulting confirmation biases because choosing whom and what to believe based on your pre-existing prejudice can mean the difference between being sick and being well. Furthermore, society simply isn’t used to drastically changing habits, routines, and thoughts based on real-time scientific findings. “The general public is used to getting fairly definitive information from science,” Dr. Kaplow says. “What has happened with COVID-19 is science and health care are learning and discovering through the natural and prescribed process of science, but they’re doing it in a manner that’s public.” Right now, we need to actively commit to following—and trusting—the steps of the scientific process as they play out in real time.

So, what you shouldn’t do right now as a response to mixed messaging is “go with your gut” (and, ahem, hand over the reins to your confirmation biases). Instead, look to experts who can offer you the most current, rock-solid information available. Dr. Kaplow says your information should come from someone who’s multi-hyphenate in science, and not a politician. Epidemiologists, virologists, experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and doctors working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) all fit the bill. If you stumble across someone without and MD, PhD, or DO, who’s giving medical advice, check your confirmation biases and move on.

Danielle Forshee, PsyD, adds that flexibility and self-empathy can also go be helpful for effectively parsing information during a pandemic. “Monday-morning quarterbacking is a thing that really only tortures us. This is called hindsight bias and is something to try your best to avoid doing, especially right now,” she says.  “Remind yourself that you did make and are making the best decisions you can based on the messages received and the information you do have. Remember, the authorities are still working hard to figure out what’s what.” That way, you won’t have to inhabit the confusion spiral for as long as it takes us to make it through the other side of the pandemic.

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