Our behaviors change in times of crisis, as do the ways in which we communicate and process information. Crises tend to provoke four distinct cognitive responses, according to Psychology of a Crisis, a report on crisis and emergency risk communication from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
First, we organically simplify the messages we get. In times of crisis we don’t remember as much as we normally do because we are distracted by worry. If the message is less than crystal clear, our chance of misinterpreting it is much greater.
Second, we hold onto our current beliefs. In a crisis we often default to prior assumptions and behavior patterns. During the pandemic, for example, many people ignored official pleas to wear masks, even though the data clearly showed that wearing a mask reduced the risk of contracting or transmitting the virus. This behavior wasn’t just a matter of selfishness. It was also caused by fear, and the inability to process information in anything but the simplest way. (Many mask skeptics didn’t think the virus could affect them personally because they couldn’t see it.)
Third, we tend to reach out to get even more information. More often than not, we are looking for better, happier information so that we can contradict something we heard that is discomforting. Because people are always more receptive to information that makes them feel better, it’s crucial that businesses provide accurate, clear data and recommendations in times of crisis.
Finally, we tend to believe the first message we hear. It’s our way of filling in blanks and uncertainty during a crisis. The takeaway for business leaders is that customers and employees will interpret your first message as signal. Everything else is noise.