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BGU’s Dr. Tomer Bakalash: COVID and Uncertainty

BGU’s Dr. Tomer Bakalash: COVID and Uncertainty

September 10, 2021

Social Sciences & Humanities

Haaretz — In an interview with Haaretz, social psychologist, neuroscientist, and BGU lecturer, Dr. Tomer Bakalash, explains what happens to our brain in situations of uncertainty – and how we can exploit it to our advantage.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is the most uncertain time since World War II,” says Bakalash.

“My doctoral degree involved brain research. I am engaged in a relatively new field, called neuromarketing: the influence of the media, and in particular the marketing media, on the brain.”

When and how did you become interested in uncertainty?
“Within the framework of my occupation with consumer behavior, I sometimes act as a consultant to companies and organizations. A few months before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, an international fashion firm asked me to sum up for it the body of knowledge about the psychology of uncertainty.

Effectively, they commissioned me to perform a meta-analysis [a systematic assessment of the results of previous research], because they wanted to understand what psychology and brain research could tell them about decision-making in an environment of uncertainty.

The explained to me that the world of fashion had been operating in an uncertain environment for some years, because of frequent changes in patterns of preference and buying by consumers.”

And this, you say, was before the pandemic?
“As fate would have it, on the day I was supposed to present the body of knowledge to them, Ben-Gurion airport was shut down because of the coronavirus. But I was already equipped with a theoretical body of knowledge about decision-making in conditions of uncertainty, and it became a tool of applied research for me.”

Perhaps you can define uncertainty.
“Uncertainty is the unraveling of the connection between cause and effect. We perceive the world as being composed of long chains of causes or actions, and their results. This is not controlled, conscious or volitional. It’s the way our brain works, the underlying principle of our operating system.”

Everything is fluid. Even this conversation: We arranged a day and a time, then came the WhatsApp from the day camp, and I canceled our meeting and hurried to find the nearest swab. So here we are, speaking a day later, with me cloistered with a 6-year-old boy, waiting to find out what our fate will be.
“That’s exactly the thing. That uncertainty event is not private. It’s collective. We are all sharing the experience.

You know, we all live with the knowledge that tomorrow a grand piano might fall on us as we walk down the street. But the uncertainty of the pandemic is of a sort that compels us to come into contact with it and cope with its consequences all the time. We know that the idea of control is an illusion – but even that illusion has been taken from us.

In general, we confuse certainty and control. Certainty is a fiction. That we understand well, at least cognitively. But as [the American social psychologist] Leon Festinger taught us, the human experience is also composed of the emotional and behavioral level. We actually know very well that certainty is a fiction, but we want to feel that there is such a thing, because that gives us a feeling of control. The coronavirus crisis has deprived us of that feeling. I just heard [infectious diseases expert] Prof. Galia Rahav say to [TV journalist] Ilana Dayan that the pandemic has taught physicians to be humble – it has brought humility into our lives.”

Humility or thralldom?
“Maybe both? We live in an era in which we are used to feeling in control. There aren’t many gray areas. There is no not-knowing. If my child asks me a question and I don’t know the answer, I spend a second looking in Google. I won’t tell him, ‘I don’t have a clue.’ But now we simply don’t have a clue. The last time uncertainty like this prevailed, at a world level, was in World War II. It’s an overwhelming, jolting experience for the modern individual. Today it’s clearer than ever to us that the living environment we have engineered for ourselves is not serving us properly and is not adaptive to the challenges that still await us.”

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