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What Behavioral Science Has to Say About Uncertainty

Posted by SellCheck Team

What the $@*# is going on?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, so much has happened so fast. We've all had to manage rapid change and uncertainty. Circumstances have jolted people out of their regular routines. With so much out of our hands (and we'd be remiss not to remind you to keep washing them for at least twenty seconds), it's quite reasonable to feel confused, bothered, frustrated, and for many depressed.


When we don't understand what the #*$@^^# is going on - or what might happen next - one way to restore calm and take back some semblance of control is to understand what behavioral economics has to say about uncertainty. A better understanding of how the brain works and how we think can at least lead to at least some level of assurance that what we are feeling is expected.

Uncertainty and The Science Behind How Our Brains Work

Why We Don't Plan Better: The Planning Fallacy

Traditional economists adhere to a rational cost-benefit approach to decision making. In theory, people take their time to weigh the costs and benefits of their choices and rationally wrestle with conflicting interests (short term and long term). A rational approach works perfectly well on paper, but human decision making is much more...messy. 

The planning fallacy has to do with our tendency to believe that when we make plans, the future will go according to them. Because bad things happen at different times, we don't take many of them into account. That mental blindspot results in not preparing for contingencies and problems, both predictable ones and unknown unknowns. It is why we don't always plan for disasters appropriately as people, countries, or our world. 

Scarcity Encourages Hoarding

Humans respond negatively in situations where things don't seem to make sense. When people lack overall control, they often seek to find something smaller they can control. Buying supplies for our household makes us feel better because there is at least SOMETHING we can do in a world upended.


As COVID-19 spread, people made a run on consumer staples, wiping out in-store and online inventories for hand sanitizer, wipes, toilet paper, water, and other items. Why?

People are more likely to value something when it abruptly becomes scarce. Scarcity steals mental capacity wherever it occurs - from the hungry to the lonely, to the time-strapped, to the poor - and creates tunnel-vison focus. Other people buying toilet paper in droves kicks our instinct into high gear. While our rational brain may realize we have enough at home, we buy toilet paper too, and the shelves remain empty.

Contradiction Hurts Credibility

Not to be political, or comment on the current administration’s handling of the pandemic, but contractions in behavior and communication add to people's confusion. Early on, the seriousness of the coronavirus, the number of testing kits, the virus's death rate, and the timeline of a possible vaccine all were in dispute. The President's behavior sent a clear message that no one firmly understood what was going on, and we had no real control over the pandemic.

The situation could have been mitigated - and people better assured from the outset - despite the ever-evolving situation. Better communication would be to have explained what happened, the proposed measures to combat coronavirus, and what they were going to achieve. Any change, of course, should be accompanied by reasoning that led to the shift in thinking, and what the plan was going forward.


3 Things Marketers Can Do In Uncertain Times

Now that we've explained more about the biases we are dealing with, there are a few behavioral science and marketing principles to consider as you create marketing in the age of COVID-19. Here are five quick considerations to better design for the shopper mindset based on how we make decisions during times of uncertainty.

Messages Must Match the Mood; Be Extra Sensitive

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When consumers are not in good moods, they are less receptive to messages. It is essential to match your message to the mood. Keith Wilcox, Professor of Marketing at Columbia Business School, studied mood congruency and determined there is indeed a correlation between how people feel, the messages they receive, and how they act. "When you feel low or sad, ads that are high energy are difficult to the ad is less effective". He concluded that advertisers should seek out mood states that are congruent with their tone. 

Adopt a Proactive, Consistent Stance

As mentioned previously, people do not behave rationally during a crisis. So contradiction hurts credibility more so now than at any other time. Brands can work to enhance consumer trust with marketing content and outreach efforts that resonate with customers. As marketers reset goals amid increasing or falling sales, or even after suspending operations, communication is vital. By demonstrating how they prioritize customer well-being over financial concerns, brands can cultivate a sense of trustworthiness and engender lasting loyalty. One watch out here is that brands can't reach out to consumers preaching goodwill when slashing jobs and other elements of their business. Contradictory behavior will be sniffed out and not tolerated.

A Change in Habits Offer Opportunity

As much as half of consumer behavior is habitual. The same buying decisions are made over and over without conscious thought. Ever stop to wonder why you buy a particular brand of toothpaste? It's likely because you always have versus a specific reason.

Habits are hard to break, which means it's an uphill battle for brands to persuade non-buyers to purchase. According to research from Richard Shotten and Laura Weston, consumers were more likely to switch brands when they had undergone a life event. People were 2.5X more likely to change brands. These are not standard times. It is one of those rare moments when the grip of habit loosens. Uncertainty offers marketers an opportunity to communicate before new habits form but do so with care and proper tone.

Bonus Tip: What Happens if You Make A Mistake? Admit Your Mistakes

So much is changing due to COVID-19 that today's facts can be wrong. Should you admit to your mistakes (and, by the way, mistakes always happen)? It turns out that honesty is the best policy. Consumer behavior research from social psychologist Fiona Lee sought to measure the effects of admitting to missteps and faults. She found that emphasizing strategic decisions (we made a mistake) versus blaming external events (it's not our fault) was preferred. Placing blame on external forces (even if they happened to be true) gave skeptics a reason to view companies as not having the ability to fix the problem, beyond the consideration that they might just be making excuses.



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Learn More…

SellCheck seeks to help marketers do their best by providing clarity and confidence through the discipline of creative effectiveness. Our “Designing for the Shopper Mindset” Series was created to help you improve your business by highlighting key design principles and what to do about it to be more effective.

SellCheck is a marketing research platform designed to streamline the creative process, produce better marketing, and boost sales. Whether creating digital ads, in-store signage, or packaging, science-based design principles can improve your creative effectiveness. Why is this important? Ads optimized for selling outperform those that are not by 30% or more.

Please contact Chris Bedford ( for more on how we blend shopper expertise and behavioral science to help you better “Design for the Shopper Mindset.”


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We provide clarity and confidence through the discipline of creative effectiveness.

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