COVID-19 will require a multidisciplinary response

Dr. Sabine Marx is an expert who specializes in decision making and risk perception in times of crisis and uncertainty. She’s one of the experts featured on our COVID-19 Help Desk and we interviewed her to get her insights into how collaboration between different disciplines can have an immediate impact during the crisis.

“Uncertainty is uncomfortable and now we are dealing with multiple uncertainties,” said Dr. Marx, “including our evolving scientific understanding of the virus, we’re not sure when medical countermeasures will be available, what the right behavioral measures are or if they will work, and what others will do with the behavioral recommendations. This interpersonal uncertainty is particularly important in situations where cooperation is a pre-requisite for success.”

Dr. Marx has a doctorate in medical history from Carnegie Mellon University and currently works as Senior Trainer for Post-Disaster Economic Recovery at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness. She is also a Communications Strategist with Brevity&Wit, a strategy and design firm. Her two decades of experience include stints at The Earth Institute at Columbia University, the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. 

The availability of medical information alone is not enough to deal with the COVID-19 crisis

“Companies cannot allow themselves to fall into a ‘finite pool of worry’ which describes a trick of the mind that limits how many problems we can keep in mind simultaneously,” said Dr. Marx. “Leaders need to be able to overcome this pitfall and keep a multitude of risks in mind. Social science insights can help make executives aware of this human tendency and can provide tools for overcoming this barrier to comprehensive planning and optimal decision making.”

While scientific research and epidemiological advice on COVID-19 are absolutely crucial, Dr. Marx said these can be even more powerful tools for reaching a wider audience if combined with social sciences and knowledge about human behavior. 

She points to best practices on hygiene, exercise, and prevention of STDs to name a few examples of public health campaigns-  things incorporating medical research and knowledge about human behavior.

‘We are not rational decision-makers’ so communication is key

“Risk perception is subjective,” Dr. Marx said. That is why it is important to have people at the table who understand how to work with and around this kind of natural human behavior. She explained it is key to know both “how to motivate pro-social behavior, and how to communicate scientific information.”  

Communication is key, but it has to be tailored for your audience. Scientists can communicate all the risk they want through data, but it won’t be perceived as a risk until it is framed in a way that speaks to people’s behavior. For instance, social distancing had to be enforced through government mandates, but also through sharing stories of those who paid the price for not following instructions, as well as stories about how non-compliance by some affected the health of others.

“The communication of the science around coronavirus and COVID-19, the needed behavior changes, the organizational changes, policy design, and design of other interventions including the stimulus package – all of these can benefit from the insights we have gained in the social and decision sciences and humanities,” said Dr. Marx.

If you would like a consultation with Dr. Sabine Marx, learn more about her experience at COVID-19 Help Desk, or contact our team to connect with her directly if you don’t currently have an account with OnFrontiers.