Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.Arthur Golden
The following are some of my thoughts from the first week of “lockdown”.
At the time of penning this, the major ongoing crisis is the COVID-19 situation and some of the discussion points relate to that topic. I am not overly interested in the virus specifically, though, but more so with the behaviour that has arisen because of it. These thoughts and ideas are somewhat mixed and potentially lack a coherent direction, but the general goal has been to make some observations and draw some cautious lessons from what has transpired so far. Hopefully what follows gives you something to think about and may continue to provide some value even once the current threat has passed.
I – Decision making ability is important
Making a decision is the act of choosing amongst a variety options, with these options leading to one of a number of outcomes. To the degree that outcomes are important—and they are—so is decision making. I believe this all to be true, irrespective of the fact that the vast majority of the decisions we make throughout our lives are of low significance. Very low, in fact.
For the most part, we make decisions regarding which brand of dishwashing liquid to buy, whether to host some friends for dinner on Friday night, which friends should be invited, what we will serve and whether or not to click through the email we just received to the sale that amazon.com are having.
A few particular decisions, however, possess a wildly more potent impact-factor. Decisions across our lives seem to map onto the Pareto Principle rather well—with the majority of our decisions impacting our lives in a minimal manner, while a small amount of decisions shape and influence our lives substantially.
As Keith Stanovich highlights in Rationality & The Reflective Mind:
“A small subset of all the decisions we will make in our lives end up being the dominating factors in determining our life satisfaction. Deciding what occupation to pursue, what specific job to take, who to marry, how to invest, where to locate, how to house ourselves, and whether to have children may, when we look back on our lives decades later, turn out to have determined everything.”
This seems like an obvious point, however, discussion of the art and science of decision-making is almost completely absent from our collective consciousness. If we value acquiring certain outcomes—and negating others—then, I believe, we should place greater importance on the practice of making better decisions. Improving average decision-making ability seems like a relatively foolproof way to raise life-satisfaction across broad ranges of people. I understand that knowing how to do that is the difficult aspect. I don’t believe that invalidates my point, though.
The post-COVID era is going to full of change and innovation. Hopefully some of it can occur in the realm of decision-making. If it were to, we would certainly be better armed as a species to deal with situations like this in the future.
II – Governmental decision making ability is critical
In everyday life, politics is a dirty word. It is mostly considered a topic of mental masturbation for the intelligentsia to engage in. However, we are all currently living our lives in a way that is heavily influenced—or constrained—by governmental policy. We can’t frequent some of our favourite businesses as they have been closed down. The methods by which we typically socialise have been completely disrupted. Even being out in public in a group there is three is against the law currently. We seem to recognise this as a unique moment in time. That line of thinking is (partially) erroneous.
Politics can, and does, have more of an impact on day to day life than people realise—yes, even when there is no global pandemic taking place. While the present moment has resulted in rapid and drastic changes, thus generating public awareness and opinions on governmental action—or lack thereof—it should be recognised that this political influence is occurring at all times. There is no facet of life that operates completely outside of the political bubble—it is connected to everything. Some things more strongly, sure, but everything is connected to and influence by it nonetheless. For this reason, acquiring the bare minimum of political literacy should certainly be encouraged for all those capable.
In relation to the first point I made about the Pareto-esque nature of decisions and the magnitude of their impact, the same power-laws apply to governmental decisions also. While all political decisions are having some level of effect on the citizens they represent, some certainly more strongly influence the way of life for the general public. For better or worse, short and long-term alike.
It does appear that two extremely important decisions, which have had and will continue to have profound impacts, have been made in recent times by various state and national governments around the world. These two decisions are of course based around COVID-19 and were effectively: When to act & to what magnitude?
As things currently stand, countries such as Singapore and New Zealand seem to have done an excellent job regarding these decisions. We are still far too close to the event though—in fact, we are within it—to recognise the entire impact of any one country’s strategy. The early leaders may have signed themselves up for unpredicted consequences—we simply do not know. What we can be sure of, however, is that although the death count is the primary variable being monitored at the moment, it is not the only piece of the equation when it comes to governing a nation.
Regardless, for the sake of argument, let us say that Singapore and New Zealand have made the most optimal decision for themselves. Unfortunately, however, even good decisions can have diminished returns when operating with and amongst agents or agencies with varying levels of decision-making competency.
The apparent failure of decision-making by other countries means that trade and the health of the global economy will still be felt massively by New Zealand and Singapore, even though they made the “right” decision. Thus, decisions made by those we rely on, and not just our own, are also extremely important. Being aware of how others make their decisions, and what they are likely to do is a crucial factor to consider when developing any strategy—even if it is not necessarily a competitive one.
III – Science is who we turn to
When it comes to making effective decisions—often only after we’ve bungled things previously—the dry and uncharismatic characters of data and science are who we turn to. As they rightly should be.
As Ciaran O’Regan writes in an excellent blog post, which you can find here:
“Less obvious though, is that we should also be thankful for the existence of science in the first place. This is because, if it were not for science, we would not have even discovered the existence of viruses.
If we had never learned about microbiology and had never even seen a microscope, how could we possibly use our intuition to determine that there were these tiny molecules and particles undetectable using our normal senses that were making us sick? We would likely have reverted to superstitious nonsense and thought that demons, evil spirits, or angry Gods were cursing us.”
Ciaran is completely correct. Not only is science our best weapon in this fight, but it is responsible for letting us know where the fight was even taking place. Without fields such as microbiology, immunology and epidemiology, we would have—literally—been blind to the problem.
When it comes to matters of global catastrophe, like the one we are currently experiencing, we listen to science and appeal to our common men and women to do the same. “Stay home, socially distance yourself. It’s not for your safety, it’s for theirs,” we cry.
As an advocate of science, I find this situation results in mixed feelings. I am always amazed by the wonders of science, whether it be medicinal or technological, and am emboldened to see it being accepted and promoted—even implicitly—by large swathes of the general public. However, there is something at least mildly frustrating about this too though. When it comes to fighting a global pandemic, we willingly accept the help of the empirical method. But for the likes of vaccines or climate-change we are all too quick to claim conspiracy or Big Science. It is unfortunate that things must get to such dire circumstances, where there is thousands upon thousands of deaths and extensive media coverage in order to listen to the recommendations of scientists around the globe.
It does make me wonder just how instrumental the media still is in creating action for these causes. If we turned on the TV every day to find a graph letting us know how much environmental destruction we caused overnight, or how much we shorted the lifespan of the earth by, we might just be a little more encouraged to act.
Regardless though, the point I want to make is that science is not just a tool than can be implemented in dire times like we are experiencing now, but one that should be accepted and encouraged almost always. We would do better individually, nationally and globally if we were more willing to accept what science can teach us.
IV – “Just wash your hands”
This was one of the more entertaining movements that arose over the last few weeks. I love how simply life is portrayed to be on social media.
It became a trend very quickly for people to begin sharing opinions that can be paraphrased as “it’s not that hard, just wash your hands people” or the more sarcastic “I love how it’s taken a global pandemic for people to learn basic hygiene”. This last one was usually followed by a serious of unimpressed emojis, such as the eye-roll and the face-palm. In actuality, most posting about it was done for social signalling purposes, rather than communicating a medically informed opinion (regardless of whether what was said was actually in line with the medically informed opinion). But I digress.
On the topic of hand washing, however, I would caution that most people aren’t the pinnacle of personal hygiene that they think themselves to be.
For starters, all of the preaching is somewhat redundant considering that no one knows how responsible for the proliferation of the disease they have been. If this were a science-fiction novel and we all had a small screen across our forehead that displayed the number of people we had been responsible for killing in our lives, we would be a lot less self-righteous in our public-boasting.
While I’m certainly not suggesting that washing your hands is a bad message to spread, what I am saying though is that there is a large degree of variance in how effectively that message can be spread—being condescending is not in the Effective Communication 101 syllabus. I think a lot more people would do well to be a little more self-aware, humble themselves a fraction and recognise they aren’t saving the public or giving any grand proclamations via their Instagram story. They are, for the most part, just trying to achieve a few positive responses and reactions from those who already agree with them.
I thought something that might be a worthwhile consideration at this point is an article on the apparent simplicity of “basic personal hygiene,” as according to social media. The following are excerpts from an article written by Atul Gawande, MD, MPH. Gawande is a surgeon, public health researcher and best-selling author. He has a lot to say on matters like this, and you might find some of his views slightly humbling. The article appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine and its relevance to the present moment is illustrated immediately by its title: On Washing Hands.
Even medical staff can have a tricky time remembering to wash their hands:
“The hardest part of their job [infectious disease experts], they say, is not the variety of contagions they encounter, or the fears the staff have about some of them, or even the press, which can cause panic to spread faster than any biologic infection. Instead, their greatest difficulty is getting clinicians like me to do the one thing that consistently halts the spread of most infections: wash our hands.”
The hands are bacteria heaven:
“No part of human skin is spared from bacteria. Bacterial counts on the hands range from 5000 to 5 million colony-forming units per square centimetre. The hair, axillae, and groin harbor greater concentrations. On the hands, deep skin crevices trap 10 to 20 percent of the flora, making removal difficult, even with scrubbing, and sterilization impossible. The worst place is under the fingernails.”
Effective hand washing is a very intensive process and is unlikely to have been undertaken by the vast majority of people spouting off about how unsanitary everyone else is, especially when you consider how often they were picking up their bacteria-ridden phones and posting about it:
“Plain soaps do, at best, a middling job of disinfecting. Their detergents remove loose dirt and grime, but 15 seconds of washing reduces bacterial counts by only about an order of magnitude. … Even with the right soap, however, proper hand washing requires a strict procedure. First, you must remove your watch, rings, and other jewellery (which are notorious for trapping bacteria). Next, you wet your hands in warm tap water. Dispense the soap and lather all surfaces, including the lower one third of the arms, for the full duration recommended by the manufacturer (usually 15 to 30 seconds). Rinse off for 30 full seconds. Dry completely with a clean, disposable towel. Then use the towel to turn the tap off.”
Humans are fallible and forget things easily:
“I have tried lately to be more scrupulous about washing my hands. I do pretty well, if I say so myself. But then I blow it. It happens almost every day. I walk into a patient’s hospital room, and I’m thinking about what I have to tell her concerning her operation, or about her family, who might be standing there looking kind of angry at me, or for that matter, about the funny little joke a resident just told me, and I completely forget about getting a squirt of that gel into my palms, no matter how many reminder signs have been hung on the walls.”
Someone is responsible:
“Flowing in and out of the patients’ rooms were physical therapists, patient care assistants, nurses, nutritionists, residents, students. Some were good about washing. Some were not. Yokoe [an infectious disease expert] pointed out the three rooms with precaution signs on the doors because of MRSA or VRE [incredibly treatment-resistant bacteria]. Only then did I realize we were on my own patient’s floor. One of those signs hung on his door. He was 62 years old and had been in the hospital for almost three weeks. He had been transferred in shock from another hospital where an operation had gone awry. I performed an emergency splenectomy for him and then had to go back in again when the bleeding still didn’t stop. He got through it all, though. Three days after admission, he was recovering slowly but steadily. Surveillance cultures were completely negative for resistant organisms. Ten days after admission, however, repeated cultures came back positive for both MRSA and VRE. A few days after that, he became septic. His central line — his lifeline for parenteral nutrition — had become infected, and we had to take it out. Until that moment, when I stood there looking at the sign on his door, it had not occurred to me that I might have given him that infection. But the truth is I may have. One of us certainly did.”
Again, I will reiterate. The message of wash your hands is a good one. But rather than slandering everyone else for their own lack of hygiene, you might want to consider the likelihood that you played a role, one way or another, in this pandemic.
A virus is like peanut butter, it doesn’t spread itself.
V – The role of information
In addition to the above saga, another one of the interesting things that arose recently was the evident contrast in people’s attitudes towards the virus and what it represented. While the “wash your hands” crowd were busy engaging in—I hope no kids are reading this—their social media circle-jerk, many others were still just focusing on the tasks and activities of daily life, giving little thought to the discussion around social distancing. Consequently, after multiple photos were taken of settings such as beaches and parks still displaying dense populations of people, a social media uproar was imminent. And with that, the mob was awoken. Comments and resharing of images that questioned the intelligence of the photographed populations or castigated their selfishness rapidly became the new norm.
Personally, I found all of this rather repugnant.
Now, I am not defending the behaviour of the beach- and park-goers from a disease control standpoint. Ideally, yes, social distancing would have been executed much more effectively. Well, actually, ideally we aren’t in this position to begin with—but you know what I mean. Either way, people shouldn’t have been gathered together like they were, that is a given, so we can get that out of the way from the beginning. So with that said, what I will do instead is again question the self-righteousness of everyone who leapt up to attack these apparent displays of stupidity, arrogance and self-absorption.
For starters, I don’t think any group of people should be spoken about like that. Sure, from the outside this kind of behaviour is frustrating and counterproductive to what we are trying to achieve nationally and globally, but I do not believe this justifies people throwing all rules of conduct out the window and labelling the group with every expletive under the sun. That seems like rather primitive behaviour for supposedly modern humans. Additionally, this kind of performance says little about the beach/park populations and more about the individual posting in such an unrelentingly disapproving manner. Without a doubt I understand that it is frustrating to see, but taking to social media to let out your frustration simply creates more negative emotion in an already rather grim situation. When you fight fire with fire, more ends up getting burnt in the process.
Secondly, when it comes to understanding the behaviour of all the individuals who visited these public places, we cannot immediately jump to the most unfavourable reading of their behaviour. In my analysis, how seriously people have taken the current situation is closely linked to how fearful they are about it—or how much they stand to lose financially—not necessarily how selfish or stupid they are. And this all began weeks ago. If we rewind back to early March, two rather distinct populations had already began forming.
The first were a group of people who were worried about the impending scenario, who had been listening to the likes of Nassim Taleb and other noisemakers in that area and could apparently see the writing on the wall. This group was additionally worried because of how poor humans are at comprehending exponential or geometric growth and they feared action would not be taken because others couldn’t even see the problem. And this is exactly what occurred in the other group, they did not see the problem. The remaining population were all relatively blasé and figured the situation was mostly getting blown out of proportion by the media. This occurred to some degree all around the world, but Australians especially are renowned for having lax attitudes to situations like this, so it should not come as a massive surprise that a portion of our population fell into this category.
The crucial point, however, is the distinct approach to information consumption that the different groups took as the days and weeks or March slowly unfolded. The already worried group became increasingly worried after keeping close tabs on how rapidly the disease was spreading in other countries, incessantly checking the news for updates and even reading about the rather scary science of how the virus operates. Undertaking behaviour of this kind is only going to take an already worried individual and magnify that worry ten-fold—and as we can see now, appropriately so. This behavioural strategy then needs to be contrasted against what the more blasé group were doing during this time though, if we wish to judge their behaviour. The unworried group was mostly siloing themselves off from this kind of information and tuning out to it, turning a blind eye or a deaf ear to it every time it came up. This is because, as I said earlier, this group mostly believed it to be the media just blowing things out of proportion.
The result of these two disparate approaches to COVID-19 is what results in a group of very concerned individuals staying mostly at home, and then a group of much less worried individuals still going about things as they would normally. The distinction I would like to make at this point, though, is that these individuals aren’t necessarily selfish or stupid, their lack of a concern was much more likely a result of being under-informed. It is much, much more likely that all those individuals would have been as worried as you and I were and are, if they knew what you and I knew. This leads me to is an observation from social psychology known at the fundamental attribution error, which is the habit of people to judge others based on personal characteristics (such as self-absorption) to an overvalued extent, whilst undervaluing the way in which the context of the situation influenced someone’s behaviour. The condemning of these individuals is likely an example of it en masse.
The third consideration to make at this point—regardless of whether the individuals who attended such public places were arrogant or simply under-informed—is how to generate the appropriate behaviour. I have had multiple discussions over the past week with individuals who made the argument that regardless of whether it was completely fair to label the individuals as pig-headed, it is still helpful to publicly condemn them so that others don’t do the same. To this I partially agree. It may be helpful to a tiny extent, but isn’t the most helpful thing to do, and in a situation like this, time is of the essence.
While shunning and shaming are effective methods of behaviour modification—to the extent they are present in basically all cultures around the world—they are not the most effective method of creating behaviour change in a highly individualistic country like Australia. In countries such as Japan, China and India the culture is strongly collectivist and moral behaviour is heavily influenced by attempting to avoid bringing shame to the family or group. For this reason, shunning and the creation of social taboos is a powerful method for behaviour change in collectivist cultures because of their strong social fabric.
Most western nations, however—a category that Australia falls into for socio-political reasons, not geographical ones—revere freedom and thus value the sovereignty of the individual over the success of the group. I do not wish to make a case that overall one of these is better than the other, however, it should be distinguished that the primary moral emotion associated with individualistic cultures is guilt. While shame is about honour and is more externally motivated, guilt is more about internal factors such as how our behaviour sits with our conscience. The primary variable that guilt depends on is respect. In order to feel guilty about one’s actions, one must have respect for the law, rule or convention that has been violated. This is why it is so common in Australia to hear the justification for illegal behaviour “well it’s a stupid law anyway”.
This then brings me to the point of how more positive behaviour change could be influenced. As they say, respect is earned—it can’t be forced or demanded. For this reason, to get someone to begin respecting social distancing regulations, they must become informed about them. It must be an internal change that reorients their degree of respect for the regulations, not an external and socially imposed one based on shame. Due to this, when it comes to combating pandemics in individualistic cultures, the transmission of information must be able to rival that of the disease. As we have seen with the numerous graphics online, a disease that is transmitted to 3 other people for every 1 that has it, can get out of hand very quickly.
I would implore you to consider this though: what if when this all began, we each made the effort of transmitting the information about the severity of the disease effectively to at least three people? If you could see the writing was on the wall, as many could, and you then convinced your best friend, your next-door neighbour and your boss that it was a serious issue and not to be taken lightly. Subsequently, all these individuals then went and communicated effectively to three more people each.
To me this seems like a much more ideal manner of creating positive behaviour change. It might be overly idealised, I’m not sure, however, I think this scenario needs to be considered otherwise individualistic cultures are likely to be easy targets for collective threats—such as infectious diseases—in the future. The freedom we so cherish means that we do not respond to social pressure or top down orders like more collectivist cultures do. Effective information and knowledge transmission then is one of the things we must improve on as a society if we wish to not be wiped out by the next superbug. Because there will be another one, and your social media echo-chamber won’t do much to slow it down.