Links and Comments: Pandemic Responses and Routines

The Atlantic, 24 Nov: Your Individually Rational Choice Is Collectively Disastrous, subtitled “Stopping the virus from spreading requires us to override our basic intuitions.”

This isn’t about haywire individual thinking (cognitive biases, the appeal of simplistic stories to explain the world, etc.); it’s about how thinking in one context, or at one scale, can be inappropriate at others. Individual vs. group thinking.

One major problem is that stopping the virus from spreading requires us to override our basic intuitions. Three cognitive biases make it hard for us to avoid actions that put us in great collective danger.

These are:

  1. Misleading Feedback
  2. Individually Rational, Collectively Disastrous
  3. Dangers are Hard to Recognize and Avoid

The first is about how, even if you behave badly during the pandemic (not wearing a mask, attending large events, etc.), you usually don’t get immediate feedback; you most likely don’t get the disease just because you didn’t wear your mask once. But eventually the odds will catch up with you. (This is a variation, I think, about how humans think well in the short-term, while dismissing long-terms threats. Like climate change.)

The second is about how, even if you do follow pandemic guidelines, you might think that going to one dinner (and not becoming infected) means it’s fine for everyone to go to one dinner. But it’s not; a certain percentage will become infected, even if you don’t.

And the third is that the virus is invisible and hard to detect or anticipate. What we don’t see we don’t fear.

In time, we can overcome these biases (at least to some extent).

We can spread the message about the dangers of indoor socializing in order to counteract the misleading feedback you’re likely to receive if you have friends over for dinner.

Social disapprobation can help too. Most people don’t litter, because they fear the judgment of their neighbors. Eventually, inviting someone to dinner in the midst of a pandemic surge may elicit similar disgust.

Social conventions change. Young people are much more likely than their elders to sneeze into their elbows. Eventually, they may also be more adept at graciously refusing to shake an outstretched hand.

(This whole subject is somewhat like the “tragedy of the commons,” (Wikipedia), in which individual actions, rational to the individual, come at the expense of the common good. I had the luck — I didn’t realize the significance at the time — to hear Garrett Hardin himself speak on the subject at UCLA when I attended there in the 1970s.)


NYT, 28 Nov: Pandemic-Proof Your Habits, subtitled “Too many people are still longing for their old routines. Get some new ones instead.”

How people are upset when traditions are violated — e.g. an alternate Thanksgiving dinner.

The good news is that much of what we miss about our routines and customs, and what makes them beneficial to us as a species, has more to do with their comforting regularity than the actual behaviors. The key to coping during this, or any, time of upheaval is to quickly establish new routines so that, even if the world is uncertain, there are still things you can count on.

First, a little background on why we are such creatures of habit. Psychologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists and neurobiologists have written countless books and research papers on the topic but it all boils down to this: Human beings are prediction machines.

“Our brains are statistical organs that are built simply to predict what will happen next,” said Karl Friston, a professor of neuroscience at University College London. In other words, we have evolved to minimize surprise.

So the unvarying way you shower and shave in the morning, how you always queue up for a latte before work and put your latte to the left of your laptop before checking your email are all essentially subconscious efforts to make your world more predictable, orderly and safe.

The answer is to find new habits to calm the nervous brain. (This reminds me of Matthew Hutson’s book, about acknowledging the biases the mind is prone to, and assuaging them [e.g. by carrying a rabbit’s foot] even as you know in some other part of your brain that those biases are irrational.)

Luckily, there is a vast repertoire of habits you can adopt and routines you can establish to structure your days no matter what crises are unfolding around you. Winston Churchill took baths twice a day during World War II, often dictating to his aides from the tub. While in the White House, Barack Obama spent four to five hours alone every night writing speeches, going through briefing papers, watching ESPN, reading novels and eating seven lightly salted almonds.

The point is to find what works for you. It just needs to be regular and help you achieve your goals, whether intellectually, emotionally, socially or professionally. The best habits not only provide structure and order but also give you a sense of pleasure, accomplishment or confidence upon completion. It could be as simple as making your bed as soon as you get up in the morning or committing to working the same hours in the same spot.

I confess I have not been upset in this way. I was already retired, staying home every day except for occasional market trips or Mexican lunches out every Tuesday, before the pandemic shutdown set in last March. My daily and weekly habits — working my websites, reading my books — were already well-entrenched, and have not been upset. Well, I miss by Tuesday Mexican lunches, but I can deal with it.

On the other hand, I did just nix a weekend visit by some close friends who just found out I had a heart attack. It would be nice to see them, and their little boy Caiden (whose birth inspired certain thoughts years ago), but it’s not worth the risk, not to mention the official stay-at-home orders imposed recently in Northern California.

This entry was posted in Culture, Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.