Too much information about COVID-19 may be hurting more than helping us

The tendency to consume news information to mitigate uncertainty is well-known to scholars. But constantly reading the news doesn’t make us feel less uncertain about COVID-19. It turns out that such efforts may make things worse. Seoin Yoon, together with her colleagues, set out to understand why the news increases uncertainty during the pandemic. She writes that this is problematic for employee performance, leading them to make less progress towards their work goals and to be less creative in their daily work.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began late in 2019, the world had no idea what was around the corner. As the pandemic evolved, uncertainty rose across many facets of people’s lives: uncertainty about how deadly the virus was, uncertainty about the economy, uncertainty about whether one’s job would still be there when the pandemic ended, and indeed, uncertainty about whether the pandemic would ever end.

As the pandemic has dragged on, many of us have tried to manage that uncertainty by seeking information. In the US, that may involve visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, searching out infection rates and deaths in the local community, watching the news as governors argued with news anchors, trying to make sense of rising COVID-19 variants from other parts of the world, or “doom-scrolling” through social media feeds. If this describes how you have spent time during the pandemic, you’re not alone—indeed, news consumption has increased dramatically as people have actively sought information to seemingly reduce their feelings of uncertainty.

The tendency to consume news information to mitigate uncertainty is well-known to scholars. Indeed, a prominent theory called Uncertainty Reduction Theory (URT) holds that in times of uncertainty, people seek information as a way of making sense of a situation. But does reading the news ever make you feel less uncertain about the COVID-19 pandemic? Or, does it often lead to even more questions and uncertainties about the nature of the pandemic and its resultant consequences? It turns out that—contrary to predictions of URT—our efforts to mitigate uncertainty by consuming news about the pandemic only made things worse.

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