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Navigating Ambiguity: Maintaining Trust Despite Changing Guidelines

As much relating to the coronavirus is still unknown, there has been changing information as related to safety guidelines, modes of transmission and vaccination timelines (amongst other issues). The realities of dealing with the novel coronavirus and emerging information has caused confusion and in some cases distrust in leaders. In this section we will explore the behavioral mechanisms used when navigating ambiguity and methods for effective communication in uncertain times.

A major issue affecting the communication during the pandemic is potential distrust in both scientists and institutions. To examine this further, we looked at trust as an individual phenomena. Trust is rooted in consistency, “calculus based trust", "Identity based trust" and mutual shared goals.


  1. Consistency- for institutions and science, both of these have taken a hit during the pandemic. The changing information surrounding the usage of masks, how the virus spreads and who is at risk has caused confusion, and sewed the seeds of a mistrust in the information being released. This can be difficult given how little was originally known about the virus and how much more there is still to learn. An example of this was how early on the WHO underplayed the role of the mask, only to later change its mind. Doubts about the efficacy of mask usage has snowballed and in some places resulted in reduced mask usage. Another example is the promotion of the drug hydroxychloroquine by both President Trump and President Bolsonaro. This drug has after early trials was found likely to be ineffective, causing a blow to the credibility of both presidents. A way to potentially work against the negative effects of inconsistency would be to present a united front, even on guidelines that may later change. If leaders and scientists agree, then there is less doubt and room for argument.

  2. Calculus based trust - known also as deterrence based trust, which is essentially doing as one promises out of fear of consequences. Here for government this concept holds steadfast whereas for science it is more nebulous. A strong example of this most democratically elected leaders who have no choice but to work to fight the pandemic or otherwise be voted out of office. There is more distrust for the scientific community, perhaps because they are not necessarily perceived as having the same accountability, perhaps due to a larger anonymity. It could be helpful to present a point person for accountability (such as Dr. Fauci) rather than address the scientific community broadly.

  3. Identity based trust-This is the more intimate (and mutual) component of trust where both parties mutually believe that their interests would be protected by the other. Do you believe your institutions would defend your interests? Do you believe scientists have your wellbeing in mind? This is a highly personal question, and answers vary from case to case.

  4. Mutual shared goals- This checks out for governments, scientists, and citizens. In this case the universal goal would be the elimination of the coronavirus.


  1. Reasserting one’s goals and responsibilities in this pandemic. This would involve stressing that this is not about political interests or party affiliations, rather about the elimination of a universal threat. This was a method used universally but notable examples can be found in some leaders in Europe, such as Angela Markel, Prime Minister of Germany and Mette Frederiksen, Prime Minister of Denmark. In both of these countries, leaders pushed the issue beyond party lines as one of national responsibility. This mentality allowed for the virus to be the goal of the collective rather than the responsibility of one political party.By contrast, the United States, Mexico and Brazil are examples of cases that did not follow this method.

  2. Giving avenues for constituents to have questions answered and concerns addressed. It is important that individuals feel that their interests as individuals are going to be heard and if possible, addressed. This is very common in the United States and was a huge success with Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York. The answers that the Governor gave were so concise that his press briefings became wildly popular nationwide, to the point that the President had to reschedule his own around Cuomo’s. This is evidence of how important it is for individuals to know that they are being heard and to be communicated with directly.

  3. To address the uncertain and evolving information, it could be valuable to express the novelty of the situation, but regardless reassert the importance of following the guidelines given the mutual goal in mind. Most governments have stressed this, so more striking examples are governments who have underplayed the situation and claimed to have answers. The United States is a good example of this with the pushing of several treatments nationally, under the assumption that they would be effective. They were not, and this generally only created more confusion.


  1. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1083-6101.2009.01472.x

  2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0277953606002231

  3. https://psyarxiv.com/uhbk9/

  4. https://www.almendron.com/tribuna/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/the-affect-heuristic-paul-slovic.pdf,

  5. https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/53660272/Kahnemann-Before_you_make_that_big_decision.pdf?1498448493=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DThe_Big_Idea.pdf&Expires=1593693331&Signature=YCTf2L62faMhccYekiZwCFhKeYiiFBEOxSGw30aRxgdL0~ZGrePQm5f8PLRMU-93RNqpZN~LwwvwEROUe-AJAXG-kV8Ex1dJyGCbtx7anmqBvsF6OIYpPRl6lsYXU4imA--tiZ5JuxypVoHtl68KthQxyMUl9kJjNwVdsM6JO-YSYaSS~wIoxtHmE2z14DNE65edrRMO7-ZnHK3oEVWib-l4DvBgv4z5D1g7ZR7D5PS~aJ0bOkixTDbZr2WpbS1z1MB2cn7wQSL507eOLhMLDbu5HNgJdT1X6TnNMHoFxndbTXb518wQqLn3hY866uVZ4cr2GruR~m24tqOUNvGHeg__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA

  6. https://bostonreview.net/science-nature/david-s-jones-stefan-helmreich-shape-epidemics

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