Events of the past can help us make decisions during the crises of today

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Making good decisions during difficult situations – such as the COVID-19 pandemic – is the subject of a new book by an academic at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Prompted by the unfolding coronavirus crisis, behavioural economist Dr Sheheryar Banuri looks at what we can learn from past actions in similar events to help give ourselves the best possible chance of choosing wisely.

From the strange case of typhoid spreader Mary Mallon in the early 1900s to the disaster-averting actions of Stanislav Petrov during the Cold War, ‘Good Decisions for Strange Situations’ explores how the psychology of decision-making changes under stress and how we can avoid making the wrong choices.

It comes as governments around the world make decisions about the COVID-19 lockdown, including at what stage and how to ease restrictions and revive economies.

“Good decisions are hard and we’ve all been in situations where we panic or overthink,” said Dr Banuri, of UEA’s School of Economics. “Now, more than ever, we are in unfamiliar territory. Our routines and norms have been completely disrupted, replaced by stress and anxiety, making a good decision harder than ever.

“This book is about dealing with those totally unfamiliar problems and situations. The impetus for this is the coronavirus crisis, but the applications are far more wide-reaching, offering lessons to help people cope when confronted with the strange, the unusual, and the unfamiliar.

“From being caught in an earthquake or other natural disaster, to dealing with an aggressive stranger or reacting in an emergency situation. In such a situation, we make choices in an unusual manner. Often, this leads to outcomes we would have preferred to have avoided, either for ourselves or for others. When facing any scenario for the first time that carries an unknown risk, the lessons we learn will therefore prove invaluable.”

As well as lessons from the past, Dr. Banuri says following four rules – Breathe, Be aware, Be accountable, and Be discerning – will help when faced with difficult decisions in the future.

“As we head into an uncertain future, we have reasonable cause to be optimistic that we will tackle whatever strange, unfamiliar and threatening situations that we find ourselves in,” said Dr Banuri. “We have all the evidence from our species’ history to suggest that is the case. Yes, the world is strange and chaotic. Yes, we will encounter events that we haven’t reckoned with before. But when we do, we’ll make the right choices often enough that, with time, things will return to normality.

“My hope is that, following a time of hardship or difficulty, once we’ve addressed a threat, acted on it appropriately and overcome it, we take a moment to reflect on how hard-won and unique our normality is. Perhaps the strangest situations of all are the ones we spend unthinkingly, in peace, security and happiness with our friends and loved ones.

“For so much of human history, and for many people around the world today, this was or is impossible. Recognising the abnormality, not to mention the preciousness, of a ‘normal situation’ will give us the strength of mind to make good decisions when asked to overcome the strange ones.”

‘Good Decisions for Strange Situations’, published by Hodder & Stoughton, is available as an audio and e-book. It will be followed by ‘The Decisive Mind’, also by Dr Banuri, which will use behavioural science to help readers understand and improve their decision-making. This is due to be published in hardback and audiobook in autumn 2021.