If a picture can paint 1,000 words, this infographic would fill a library.
It is a visual representation of the death toll from various plagues throughout history (most of which originated in China), including COVID-19 (which originated in China).
You will notice that COVID-19 is a rather mundane specimen. As of April 10, its death toll fell somewhere between the Yellow Fever of the late 1800s and Ebola of 2014-2015.
What’s missing is the reaction, both public and governmental, to these pandemics. And our Coronavirus reaction will be what history remembers of the Great Freakout of 2020.
To future generations, those of us living today will be as sadly comical as those who lost everything in the Dutch Tulip Bulb Bubble of 1637. The psychological reasons for the panic will be the same:
- Social Proof
- The Availability Heuristic
How Authority Drove the Panic #
In a famous study, researchers placed a paper sign above a bank’s night drop depository that said, “Night Deposit Box Out of Order.” They posted a man in a rented police costume holding a canvas bag next to the sign. Tens of thousands of dollars in cash ended up in the “guard’s” bag. No one asked if the “guard” was with the bank. They just saw the sign, saw the uniform, and obeyed.
In a follow-up, they recreated the experiment, only this time, instead of a police costume, they used a man in a business suit. Almost the same number of people gave him their money because a man in a suit looks like a banker.
Finally, they tried the experiment with just the canvas bag and a sign saying, “Leave Deposits Here.” No one did. The symbol of authority, not the sign, is what drove behavior.
When Americans heard doctors saying, “we’re all going to die,” and saw PhD data scientists echoing, “Yep, we’re all going to die,” few people questioned these authority figures. Few people realize that authorities are no better at predicting the future than monkeys throwing darts. So, most people panicked. We went along with complete abrogation of liberty.
Because of these authority figures, we gave up employment and freedom. In the months ahead, many of us will lose our homes to foreclosure as the economic recession destroys our life savings and any hopes of a decent retirement.
We did all these things to save our lives, we thought. It might turn out that we just traded a happy life for one of extreme poverty.
That’s the power of our deference to authority and experts.
How Social Proof Drove the Panic #
People free to do anything they want will usually do what they see other people doing.
In another famous study of human behavior, researchers simply recorded which of two security checkpoint lines people got into. One line was almost empty–just two passengers waiting to hand over their boarding passes and IDs. The other started with about 20 people winding through the queuing tape. About 80 percent of newly arriving passengers chose the longer line.
Why? Because that’s what they assumed the other passengers were doing.
A study of fish showed that “following the herd” is an innate trait in almost all animals. Those passengers didn’t decide to get into the longer line. Their subconscious minds had already decided to follow the herd. Their “thinking” minds simply created a justification for their action, usually along the lines of, “there must be something wrong with that other line” or “that line is for people some privilege I don’t have.”
Seeing friends and neighbors freaking out triggered this same innate mechanism in millions of people. We all freaked out. So much so that once a Fed chairman said he expected 30 percent unemployment, most corporate executives, in a panic, cut their payrolls 30 percent. Including hospitals!
Among politicians, academics, and doctors, the herd mentality is even stronger. Once a few governors shut down almost all commerce in their states, all other governors felt obliged to follow suit. Once a few mayors went beyond the state restrictions, mayors all over began imitating the early movers. This desire to be seen as the most restrictive politician led the governor of Michigan to ban social visits. No one in Michigan is allowed to visit their mother on Easter!
And once Dr. “Benway” Fauci cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of Hydroxycholorine, less famous doctors who had seen positive results with the treatment stopped prescribing the life-saving medication, allowing their patients to die before risking ostracization from the medical community.
Social proof is so powerful that even “experts” would rather allow people to die than be seen as mavericks or renegades.
And, before you get mad at these experts, have you donned some face covering only to avoid angry stares or confrontations when you go to the grocery store?
How the Availability Heuristic Drove the Panic #
The availability heuristic is the most fascinating cognitive bias of all. This heuristic describes the human tendency to give undue weight to information that’s more recent or more frequent. For example, the common flu bug kills between 20,000 and 60,000 Americans every year, but we don’t talk about it much. COVID-19 has, so far, killed 18,000 Americans, but we hear about 24/7. Therefore, we are more afraid of COVID-19 than of the flu.
Obesity is probably the number one killer of Americans, especially obesity fueled by consumption of carbohydrates. But social proof prevents doctors from honestly talking about diet, so this killer is seldom discussed. Therefore, COVID-19 dominates our fears.
I won’t go outside if there’s any hint of lightning, but I won’t hesitate to hop in my car and drive. Statistically, I am much more likely to die in a car accident than being struck by lightning, even if I spend a lot of time outdoors.
How to Overcome These Biases #
You might be saying, “not me! I am a rational person.” I’m sure you are. But “rationality” is difficult to describe. And a perfectly rational person is likely to be very unhappy. Sometimes eating pizza is worth it even though it shortens your life and increases your risk of becoming an invalid. (If you are overweight, you behave less rationally than you think.)
But, if you’re like most people who want to make better choices while recognize you sometimes fall prey to “irrational” impulses, there’s hope.
Just by being aware of common (even universal) biases like the ones I’ve described here, you are armed with tools to recognize when you’re about to act on them. You just have to pause and think, “am I about act on impulse or decision?”
You’re also armed with critical thinking tools to help you question what you’re hearing from “experts” or witnessing in the behaviors of those around you.
As the Coronavirus plays out, apply these critical thinking tools to things you’re hearing and seeing. Protect against the availability heuristic by spending less time reading or hearing about Coronavirus. Protect against social proof (herd mentality) by honestly evaluating the situation and your own risks. Avoid enslaving yourself to authority and experts by reminding yourself that they, too, are full of all these terrible cognitive biases that cloud their judgment. They, too, believe they are being rational and making decisions based on data, but they’re not. Their subconscious minds make decisions, and the experts look for data to justify those decisions. Just like the people who “choose” to wait in the long TSA line when another line offers no waiting.
Awareness is 90 percent of the battle in overcoming cognitive biases that sap us of our freedom.