The most essential and pervasive things I learned in school weren’t course content. I discovered that | 1 | I know very little, | 2 | few things are simple, | 3 | information is filtered through perspective, | 4 | critical thinking is a learned skill, and | 5 | drawing hard lines is a waste of time. I try to look at a matter from several angles, to consider things with as little bias as I can manage, and to remain open to possibility. Undoubtedly, I don’t always succeed in this, but I try.
And today, in all the grief—both annoyance and sadness—of this pandemic, I’m trying to look at it all. It can be really overwhelming to not have clear answers, but the unfortunate reality is that we usually don’t get clear answers. None of us have the perspective that takes in mountaintops and hidden crevices alike. We don’t have eyes that see into the heart of man or ears that hear man’s thoughts. We weren’t there at the beginning of all things and we don’t know, exactly, how all things hold together. We do know it’s in Him, and that has to be enough. That is the only thing that I confidently draw a hard line on: He is in it all.
Over the last weeks, I’ve watched my community take varying stands on the current global climate. I’ve noticed a few interesting psychological and sociological patterns. As much as we may loathe to admit it, I don’t think we’re really all that different from one another. Many people may beg to differ on that, but please read on. Here are some of my thoughts that are, admittedly, influenced by my education and experiences.
First off, the confirmation bias is the idea that we search for and remember information that confirms what we believe. We simultaneously disregard and forget information that contradicts what we believe. We, in essence, filter and interpret information to serve our purposes. For example, it’s the confirmation bias at work that brought the confirmation bias to my mind! I’m searching my knowledge base for what will support what I’m trying to say. We use this bias in relationships too; we typically surround ourselves with people who challenge us less and support us more. We’re all susceptible to this tendency—if the confirmation bias is real, of course. It’s very likely that many of us, from our varied approaches to the current crisis, are seeking confirmations for our opinions and discrediting and/or ignoring that which contradicts our opinions. I may be doing so even now! The confirmation bias isn’t a fault, exactly, but a proneness we should be aware of in our approach to the world.
Each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is. We further believe that the facts as we see them are there for all to see, therefore others should agree with us. If they don’t agree, it follows either that they have not yet been exposed to the relevant facts or else that they are blinded by their interests and ideologies.JONATHAN HAIDT
With that foundation, let’s talk sickness and psychology. I recently discovered an interesting psychological theory that pertains specifically to avoiding infections. The conceptual behavioural immune system is composed of unconscious psychological responses intended to safeguard against disease. One of the responses is instinctual social-distancing, which operates on the principle of protect first, ask questions later. This can, of course, result in overreactions to the threat of disease. Research on the behavioural immune system shows increases in | 1 | conformity and | 2 | moral vigilance. This explains why | 1 | many of us follow guidance intended to protect us from infection and | 2 | why we become indignant when some individuals don’t do the same. Those who already respect social norms become more annoyed with individuals who continue not to observe social norms. Essentially, the differences that already exist between us are amplified in our new context. This finding reveals that our circumstances are not naturally unifying, as is suggested when this pandemic is contrasted to wartime conditions.
So let’s look at that. In wartime, there’s an identified enemy. The world is divided and then, for the most part, unified within those divisions. In a pandemic, if it’s agreed that the disease is the bad guy, there’s no embodied enemy to fight. Theoretically, then, we have cause for solidarity, not segmentation. But, it seems we don’t agree on the bad guy. Many individuals and groups are searching for someone to blame for our current situation. A list of implicated parties would look something like this: the Chinese population, politicians, the WHO, the CDC, and rich, fiendish masterminds. This response isn’t surprising or unreasonable. After all, it’s much more comfortable to be angry than afraid; it feels a lot less vulnerable. Believing that something was done wrong by someone is, somehow, much easier to swallow than believing this is an uncontrollable force of nature. Having a target for our emotions is understandably much preferred to the ambiguity of a faceless foe. I recognize that. I also recognize that many of these individuals may disagree with my reasoning for their behaviour. They may assert that they are thinking critically and more clearly than me. Perhaps they’d be right; I don’t know.
To be clear, I’m not saying that every government and organization has handled this perfectly—but I also have zero clue how I would handle it in their position. I’m also not saying that theories of a mastermind behind it all are definitively false—though, I’ll admit, my personal inclination is that we don’t live in Shondaland. To be even more clear, I am saying that any and all racism is uniformly wrong. I’m also saying that it’s okay to search for an explanation that puts responsibility into the hands of humanity. But, I caution those who have undertaken this search: such an explanation might not exist.
While we’re talking about blaming people, in regard to government and health professionals: let’s not forget that they’re human. They make decisions based on their personal perspective, community context, and available information. Our loyalties—which are influenced by our own personal perspectives—will make us agree with one over the other, resulting in further division. Not having a unified response from our authorities is inescapably unfortunate and it further exacerbates the crisis. Without clear guidance, we can’t know for sure which norms to follow—that is, if we’re the norm following type. With imperfect leaders who are shockingly not omniscient, we’re all stumbling along and doing the best we can in this unprecedented circumstance. But, even if our leaders are horribly diabolical or honestly dumb, our frontline workers are definitely just doing their jobs—and at great personal sacrifice. My mom works as a hospital clerk and has been cursed at multiple times this past week, as if this is somehow her fault and responsibility to fix. Even if COVID-19 has been massively blown out of proportion and our leaders are all wrong, we have a moral requirement to be kind and compassionate to the people who are serving us in this—whether we like it or not—crisis. Such behaviour isn’t limited to politeness; it includes following the steps they’re begging us to take so their jobs don’t become unmanageable. The best thing we can do for them is what they’re asking us to do. Even if we don’t believe in COVID-19, let’s believe in our everyday health professionals. Let’s do it for them.
Next, I’d like to consider why we might think that our actions don’t make a difference. Diffusion of responsibility is when individuals don’t feel responsible for doing—or not doing—something because there’s so many other individuals who are doing—or not doing—it. The truth of the matter, however, is that if many of us don’t feel responsible and don’t behave accordingly, a small group is left holding the bag for the rest of us. We think our situation is the exception—we’re the only one sharing a secret with a friend, we’re the only one littering, we’re the only one not voting—and everyone else’s responsible nature covers for us. But if you and I, plus three of your friends, my whole family, and fifteen other people we don’t know, all think we’re the exception—who is left covering? And how many people are they actually covering for? The point I’m trying to make is that there’s no inequity in responsibility; it’s no one else’s job to compensate for another’s irresponsibility. Will we have to help one another sometimes? Of course. I won’t pretend to account for every individual circumstance. But, in general, going about life with such expectations of others is lazy, selfish, and entitled. At the best of times, such expectations may have a relatively small impact on others. But these are not the best of times.
Diffusion of responsibility is also why it’s potentially dangerous to allow each family to make decisions for themselves in our present circumstance. Because, as we can see, we have varying opinions on the current situation, we will disagree with one another’s decisions and those decisions will impact each of us. For example, if my sister chooses to continue seeing only family, but I choose to see friends and family, my sister is now inadvertently exposed to all my friends as well. If my husband’s boss expects employees to work as normal but our family chooses to self-isolate, my husband risks losing his job. It’s not as simple as every family for themselves.
Following twenty different methods of resolution—conflicting methods, no less—isn’t an effective method of problem-solving. Although I may think that my idea is clearly the best one, the individuals whose ideas are in direct opposition to mine think the exact same thing. Although I may think those individuals are, well, idiots for what they believe, they probably think I’m an idiot for what I believe. We each have of our definitions of what makes a credible source and we each have authorities we trust. I can’t discredit their perspective with my own sources or authorities because they don’t trust my sources or authorities. For example, if I think peer-reviewed, scientific journals are credible but they think journals are partisan and corrupt, they won’t believe anything for which journals are the backing—especially if journals are used to discredit their trusted sources and authorities. The opposite also applies. So, we’ll both go on believing our beliefs with equal passion and ultimately end up in a mess; this predicament sounds unfortunately familiar. Without respect, flexibility, teachability, and humility, we’re chasing tails.
If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response.JONATHAN HAIDT
My last musing may seem a bit odd coming from an academic, and it may seem counterintuitive, but here it is: science changes. In every science-based textbook I’ve ever read, the authors go through at least five—usually more—theories that were in place before the current prevailing theory. Academics and scientists should be the first to tell you that the more we know, the more we discover we don’t know. With advancements in technology and the way discoveries build upon one another, we’re ever learning more and more about everything. There are no facts, only the most supported and evidenced theories. That’s why it’s called the theory of relativity or the theory of thermodynamics, for example. If evidence pointed away from a theory, the evidence should—I repeat, should—be investigated. Of course there’s the potential issues of bias, money, and politics, but a true and humble academic searches only for the never-quite-graspable truth. My point here is that scientists and health professionals are seeking answers, but the answers may change the more they learn. In the meantime, it’s our job to be patient and understanding as much as possible.
Maybe I’m naïve to believe in the goodness of our leaders and the goodness of you. But I’d rather be naïve than angry, bitter, suspicious, or fearful. Plus, I think the world could use a little more belief in goodness. Call me a fool, but I’m not changing my mind about you.
My intention for this piece is self-reflection and understanding each other. Despite everything I’ve written about human nature that may contradict my next statement, we’re not unchangeable. We have a unique and precious moment before us. Unlike any time in history, we have the opportunity to be an international community of kindness, compassion, and brotherhood. If we’re not careful, we may miss this singular chance to make a family of humanity. It may be a long shot, but I’m in.