New Sweets of Lawson Japan

Why Uncertainty Makes Us Change Our Behaviour (Even When We Shouldn’t)

Sherry Landow wrote . . . . . . . . .

Stocking up on toilet paper – bizarre as it may be – helped many people regain a sense of control at the start of the pandemic. Photo: Shutterstock.

People around the world dramatically changed their shopping behaviours at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Faced with new uncertainty, shoppers began stocking up on basic household items – especially toilet paper – to account for the new unknown. This buying frenzy led to shortages, even though, in most cases, there was enough to go around if people only purchased what they needed.

According to a study led by UNSW Sydney, reactive behaviour like this isn’t unusual, but a common way to handle unexpected uncertainty.

In fact, unexpected uncertainty is such a powerful motivator for change that it often prompts us to adjust our behaviour – even when it’s not good for us.

“When people experience an unexpected change in their environment, they start looking for ways to lessen that uncertainty,” says lead author of the study Dr Adrian Walker, who completed this research as part of his PhD in psychology at UNSW Science. “They can change their behaviour and decision-making strategies to try and find a way to regain some sense of control.

“Surprisingly, our study found that unexpected uncertainty caused people to change their behaviours even when they would have been better off sticking to an old strategy.”

The behavioural study, recently published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, is the first to show the type of uncertainty we experience – that is, whether it is expected or unexpected – plays a key role in our reaction.

For example, a city worker who knows their morning commute takes anywhere from 30 to 50 minutes wouldn’t be surprised by a 50-minute trip. On the other hand, a country driver would be very surprised if their predictable 30-minute trip suddenly took 50 minutes.

To test how people respond to unexpected change, the researchers tasked study participants with selling a pair of objects to one of two subjects – in this scenario, aliens – in a virtual simulation. Their task was simple: get as many points (or ‘alien dollars’) as possible.

Participants needed to choose which alien to sell a pair of chemicals to, but only one of the chemicals determined how much the alien would pay. They needed to work out which chemical and alien combination would earn them the greatest rewards.

An initial group of 35 participants were familiarised with the task and quickly learnt that one strategy (say, Option A) gave the better offer of 15 points. But midway through the experiment, the reward pattern changed, and Option A now gave a random number between 8 and 22 points.

“As soon as we added an element of uncertainty, the participants started looking for new ways to complete the task,” says Dr Walker. “The kicker is that in all cases, the best thing they could do was use their old strategy.”

Dr Walker says the pandemic – and our different responses to it – is a large-scale example of unexpected uncertainty.

“Everything changed very suddenly at the start of COVID-19,” he says.

“Many of us were suddenly all working from home, changing how we shop, and changing how we socialise. The rules we were living by beforehand no longer applied, and there was – and still is – no clear answer about when or how the pandemic will end.

“Different people tried all sorts of things – like panic shopping – to reduce this new uncertainty and return to ‘normal’. But as we’ve seen, not all of these reactive strategies were good in the long run.”

Boiling frog syndrome

While unexpected uncertainty led to dramatic responses, expected uncertainty had the opposite effect.

During the second phase of the trial, the researchers introduced uncertainty in a gradual way to a different group of 35 participants. Option A’s usual 15 points changed to 14-16 points, then 13-17 points, until the uncertainty rose to 8-22 points.

“The participants’ behaviour didn’t change dramatically, even though the uncertainty eventually reached the same levels as in the first experiment,” says Dr Walker.

“When uncertainty was introduced gradually, people were able to maintain their old strategies.”

While this specific experiment was designed for the original strategy to be the most beneficial, Dr Walker says other research has shown the harm in not changing behaviour when faced with gradual change.

“We can see this pattern in a lot of real-world challenges, like the climate change crisis,” says Dr Walker.

“When change is slow and barely noticeable, there’s no sudden prompt to change our behaviour, and so we hold to old behaviours.

“Trying to get action on climate change is a lot like the boiling frog fable. If you put a frog in a pot and boil the water, it won’t notice the threat because the water is warming gradually. When it finally notices, it is too late to jump out.”

Professor Ben Newell, the Deputy Head of UNSW School of Psychology, was one of the researchers involved in the project. He says an important next step in this research is translating insights about how people react to uncertainty in the lab to engaging people in climate action.

“If we can identify the triggers for exploring new alternatives, then we might overcome the inertia inherent in developing new, sustainable behaviours,” says Prof. Newell.

Woman wearing a face mask looking out of a window
The COVID-19 pandemic threw an added layer of uncertainty to almost every area of our daily lives. Photo: Shutterstock.

Being certain about uncertainty

Uncertainty is something humans face every day, whether it’s how bad traffic will be or what questions might be asked in an exam.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a new layer of uncertainty to major areas of our lives, like career, health, and living circumstances.

“While this study isn’t the whole picture for human behaviour during the pandemic, it can help explain why so many people looked for new ways to add certainty to their lives,” says Dr Walker, who is now a researcher in the School of Psychiatry at UNSW Medicine and Health.

Co-author Dr Tom Beesley, formerly of UNSW and now based at Lancaster University, says “Dr Walker’s work really helps us understand how people develop a representation of the uncertainty they are facing, and how they might cope, or not cope, with that.

“My lab is trying to formalise this relationship in a computational model of behaviour, so that we can make clearer predictions about what we might expect to happen under different conditions of uncertainty.”

While Dr Walker’s research is now focused on psychiatric epidemiology, he is interested to see where future research in this area goes – especially in predicting individual responses to uncertainty.

“Given how many decisions we make under uncertainty in our everyday lives, the more we can understand about how these decisions are made, the more we hope to enable people to make good decisions,” says Dr Walker.

Source: UNSW Sydney

Kids Who Snore Could be at Risk for Blood Pressure, Heart Problems

Obstructive sleep apnea, a type of sleep disorder characterized by disrupted breathing, may be linked to changes in blood pressure and heart structure in children and adolescents, according to a new scientific statement.

The American Heart Association report urges parents and health care providers to consider testing for children who exhibit symptoms, have obesity or have enlarged tonsils, which puts them at higher risk.

Estimates show up to 6% of all children and adolescents have obstructive sleep apnea, according to the statement published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea include habitual snoring, gasps, snorting or labored breathing while sleeping, daytime sleepiness, sleeping while seated with a distended neck, a headache upon waking and signs of an upper airway obstruction. The condition often occurs in children with obesity. About 30%-60% of children who meet the criteria for obesity – having a body mass index in the 95th percentile or higher – also have sleep apnea.

“We need to increase awareness about how the rising prevalence of obesity may be impacting sleep quality in kids and recognize sleep-disordered breathing as something that could contribute to risks for hypertension and later cardiovascular disease,” statement writing group chair Dr. Carissa M. Baker-Smith said in a news release. Baker-Smith is director of pediatric preventive cardiology at the Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware. She also is associate professor of pediatric cardiology at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Obstructive sleep apnea is associated with cardiovascular disease in adults but less is known about how the condition affects the immediate and long-term heart health of children and adolescents. A review of the most current research included in the statement found evidence it can impact emotional health, as well as the immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems in children and adolescents.

Obstructive sleep apnea risk factors vary with age. In addition to obesity, they include upper and lower airway disease; allergic rhinitis, inflammation and swelling in the nose’s mucous membrane; low muscle tone; enlarged tonsils and adenoids; craniofacial malformations; and neuromuscular disorders. Sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder, also is a risk factor.

Children born prematurely, who have delayed development of respiratory control and smaller upper airways, also may be at higher risk for sleep-disordered breathing. However, this risk gets smaller as children grow.

The statement supports recommendations from the American Academy of Otolaryngology and Head and Neck Surgery that say sleep studies, or polysomnographies, are the best test for diagnosing sleep-disordered breathing. Prior to getting a tonsillectomy, children should take this test if they have conditions that raise their risk for breathing complications during surgery. These include obesity, Down syndrome, craniofacial abnormalities such as a cleft palate, and disorders such as muscular dystrophy or sickle cell disease.

Children and adolescents with obstructive sleep apnea also may have trouble regulating blood pressure. While blood pressure typically dips during sleep, children with this condition see smaller dips than those without it. Adults whose blood pressure fails to dip during sleep have a higher risk for cardiovascular events. Because of this, the statement calls for 24-hour blood pressure monitoring to check levels in children with sleep apnea.

Even mild cases of sleep apnea – defined as just two pauses in breathing per hour – are associated with a higher risk for metabolic syndrome in children. Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of factors including high insulin and triglyceride levels, elevated blood pressure and low levels of high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, the “good” cholesterol. Continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, is a treatment for sleep apnea that delivers pressurized air through a mask that can lower triglyceride and improve HDL levels.

Long-term, severe sleep apnea also may put children at higher risk for pulmonary hypertension, when pressure in the blood vessels from the heart to the lungs is too high. The statement committee recommends that future research on how sleep apnea affects children’s risk for heart problems incorporates 24-hour blood pressure monitoring and measures of metabolic syndrome factors.

Source: American Heart Association

Nectarine and Berry Parfaits


1 large ripe nectarine or peach, halved, pitted
1 cup very thinly sliced ripe strawberries
1 cup fresh red, gold or black raspberries, or blackberries
3 tbsp orange-flavored liqueur
2 tbsp powdered sugar
8 buttery shortbread, ladyfingers, amaretti or gingersnap cookies
crumbled Fresh raspberries, for garnish Fresh mint sprigs, for garnish

Mascarpone and Lemon Whipped Cream

1 cup heavy whipping cream, very cold
2 tbsp powdered sugar
1/3 cup mascarpone cheese or crème fraiche
1/2 tsp very finely grated lemon rind
pinch salt


  1. Working over a bowl, use a sharp knife to slice 1 nectarine or peach very thinly.
  2. Add nectarine slices, strawberry slices and raspberries to the bowl.
  3. Add orange-flavored liqueur and powdered sugar. Stir gently. Let stand for about 20 minutes.
  4. Make mascarpone and lemon whipped cream. Put heavy whipping cream into a chilled stainless-steel mixer bowl. Beat on high speed until starting to thicken.
  5. Beat in powdered sugar until soft peaks form.
  6. Beat in mascarpone cheese, lemon rind and a pinch of salt just long enough to combine.
  7. Scrape into a covered container and refrigerate until serving time (or up to 6 hours).
  8. Place a generous dollop of the fruit into the bottom of 4 stemmed dessert or wine glasses. Top with 1 spoonful of the mascarpone cream, a few cookie bits and more fruit. Repeat layers to fill the glass evenly, ending with a dollop of the cream. Cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 6 hours.
  9. Serve cold with buttery cookies on the side, garnished with fresh raspberries and mint sprigs.

Makes 4 servings.

Source: Winnipeg Free Press

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