Lessons From the Pandemic: What Coronavirus Reveals About Us

We knew it was coming, and still it caught us by surprise.

Posted Mar 23, 2020

Pixabay / No Attribution Required
Source: Pixabay / No Attribution Required

Many things can and have been said about the current coronavirus pandemic. From a psychological perspective, the current crisis may serve to illuminate some fundamental, and often paradoxical, characteristics of our internal architecture.

We have a short-term mind, but a long-term life. Right now, many commentators focus on the delayed and disorderly response of the federal government to the threat. And there is much to criticize. But focusing on just that misses a larger point. Trump’s delay in acknowledging the problem was short, a few weeks at max. The more crucial delay has been years in the making. And the culprit is human nature itself.

The pandemic threat was not new, and its arrival was not in question. Experts and many otherwise smart, powerful people have warned publicly about the impending, inevitable threat years ago. But we are not good at investing now for the far-away future. For humans, (as for rats), the longer the delay between response and reward, the weaker the response (a behavioral principle known as gradient of reinforcement). In other words, our minds are short-term calculators. Immediate rewards are more appealing to us than future rewards, and immediate pain is more distressing than future pain.

This is not surprising given that we are products of evolution, and evolution has no long-term strategy or goals. It's also unsurprising given that our ancestors’ specific harsh environment privileged the short-term calculus. Yet at the end of the day, this is one big reason why our short-term pleasure habits undermine our long-term health, why we can’t move on climate change, and why we find ourselves unprepared for a pandemic’s arrival even though we knew all along it was certainly slated to arrive.

Conformity can save, but also destroy us. Human beings are social animals. We survive and thrive only in well-coordinated, coherent groups. Generally, we follow the crowd; we obey authority; we live by group rules and follow the example and instructions of those in power.

The tendency to conform serves us well on many occasions. If everyone obeys the traffic laws (stop at a red light) and norms (don’t honk your horn for fun), traffic moves seamlessly and safely. In coronavirus times, our conformity can be our saving grace. Social distancing, hand washing—and later, vaccinations—only work if everyone buys in together.

But we need not become intoxicated with, or self-congratulatory about, our conformist impulse. The same tendency, at other times, may be deployed to nefarious ends. We line up behind those in power not because they are just, moral, or wise, but because they are powerful. Conformity animates altruism and atrocity alike.

Coronavirus brings clarity, but also ambiguity. One reason the virus has prompted such large scale, quick, and coordinated action is its conceptual simplicity. The virus is here now, it has a discrete physical form, and it constitutes a simple equation—you either have it or you don’t. The clarity and one-dimensionality of this threat leave little wiggle room for debate.

On a deeper level, though, things get murkier. This pandemic is also, nontrivially, a projective test. The cascading reactions to the virus beget enough ambiguity and urgency to at once compel and confound our attentions. According to the projective hypothesis in psychology, our responses to ambiguous stimuli tell us more about ourselves than about the stimuli. The story we end up constructing regarding the coronavirus will depend on—and tell us much about—our personal experiences, sensibilities, temperament, values, and goals.

Some may see in it the wrath of God, while others may see a blessing—the cosmos calling us to awake to our folly (the coronavirus, after all, is on some level but a trailer for the real movie that is coming soon to an atmosphere near you—climate change). Some will focus on the biomedical implications while others may privilege the socioeconomic consequences. Some will interpret it through a political lens and others through an existential one. Thus, even as we all behave in quite similar ways to deal with the situation, we still see the situation we’re dealing with differently.

We are free to choose and also forced to choose. It is that interpretive feature (described above) that characterizes us humans more than any other. We know that multiple interpretations are possible and that we may choose between them. This is both our blessing and our curse. The blessing is that this awareness allows for the experience of freedom. This is what the psychologist Viktor Frankl meant when he wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

The curse is that this capacity assures that we will not see eye to eye with other people. Even when the facts are not in dispute, and even when our behavior is aligned with others’, our attitudes and interpretations may remain at odds. This means that inevitably over time, conflict will arise, with all its attendant dark consequences.

Life is lived forward but evaluated backward. “How much of what we did was good?” So sings the Chinese premier Chou En-lai in the closing aria of John Adams’s opera Nixon in China. It is a stirring existential lament and a foundational human query that applies to all of us, everywhere. The answer, for most of us, is bound to be "not as much as we could, and not as much as we thought." For several reasons.

First, while life can only be lived forward, an accurate account of a life can only be achieved in hindsight. As Steve Jobs noted in his famous 'stay hungry, stay foolish' speech: "You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward." Reflection is always clearer than prediction. 

Second, human beings are, even in their social dealings, quite self-centered and self-serving. As the writer David Foster Wallace noted in his famous ‘this is water’ speech, we see everything inevitably through the prism of ‘me.’ We are at once the narrator and protagonist of our own life story. The things that matter are those that matter to us. And we are biased in favor of feeling ourselves better than we actually are.

Third, even under the best of times, our decision-making processes are error-prone. In real-time threat situations, our decision-making ability worsens still, in part because we must process too quickly data that are too incomplete. Currently, with the novel coronavirus, the evidence we have is still tentative and emerging. The decision to rely on science in tackling this threat is, of course, correct. Science is our only good way to referee competing hypotheses—that is, pick truth over untruth and separate fact from fiction. Alas, the science upon which we rely needs to be sound, and it needs to provide a sufficiently robust evidence base. Science of this sort takes time. And we don’t have time in a crisis situation.

Relying on insufficient science, while still our best option, is nevertheless not a very good one. First, the less data we actually have, the more space remains for veering off the path of fact and into the ditch of opinion, wishful fantasy, conjecture, and, consequentially, error. Most of the steps we are taking right now are based on an incomplete evidence base, and are therefore quite error-prone. We’re doing our best. But in retrospect and upon reflection, much of what we’re doing now will likely turn out to not have been good.

Objective facts inform our subjective judgment, but they cannot replace it. Even once the science is done, and done well; even when we have all the facts—at the end of objectivity, all our social decisions are subjective value judgments.

The coronavirus situation is case in point. Saving many people from death by coronavirus may result in many deaths from other causes—for example, those related to heightened stress, untreated illness, disruption in community support, financial collapse, despair, etc. The steps we're taking to save coronavirus patients now will also shatter many people’s plans, dreams, and lifework—small business owners, creatives, travelers, etc. They will irretrievably dim the life quality and future of yet many others—the working poor, retirees with disappearing pensions, etc. By getting rid of one burden, we shoulder another. Thus, every decision we make (or fail to make) constitutes a trade-off: How much are we willing to pay, or sacrifice, or lose, or risk for the gains we stand to make. The ultimate question is always: “Is it worth doing?” And the worth of anything is subjective.

We change quickly but are also resistant to change. From an evolutionary perspective, our species has been quite successful so far. We have spread far and wide, and have grown steadily in numbers. Much of our success is due to our apparent adaptability. The coronavirus pandemic is case in point. A few days ago we were all living differently than we do now. Many of the things we’ve taken for granted until recently have now been upended, our routines disrupted, our plans derailed. And yet change we did, with astonishing speed and relatively little resistance or protest. We have adapted.

But look closer, and you'll notice other truths. First, much of our adaptive success is due not to our ability to adjust to circumstance but to our ability to shape the circumstance in ways that suit us. Most creatures adapt to fit the environment. We change the environment to fit us. We are, in other words, messing with nature, the very thing that is giving us life. How this gambit fares long-term is an open question.

Second, we cannot control everything about our environment. And so we do have some built-in flexibility. Alas, every flexibility is undergirded by rigidity. This is because something cannot be based on itself. The basis for rationality cannot be rational; competition (say, between two teams) has to be based on cooperation (about agreed-upon rules); math proofs must be based on math axioms, etc.

We are rigid in that we are unwaveringly, universally contextual. We respond strongly to—and synchronize quickly and powerfully with—our immediate, current context. When we have one dollar, having two dollars is a dream. When we have a hundred dollars, having two dollars is a nightmare. Our current context dominates our experience. The memory of the past may remain, but its hold on our immediate actions and attentions loosens markedly over time. 

This is why we may predict that however grave its social impact, the coronavirus pandemic will eventually become a memory. Most of the lessons of coronavirus—the clarified priorities; the acute awareness of life’s fragility and worth; the new appreciation of simple social pleasures; those grand promises we make to ourselves when our taken-for-granted assumptions are temporarily violated—will fade with time, becoming mere tales of contexts past. And we will go back to being short-sighted, self-focused, conflicted, and as mired in trivial preoccupations as ever.

Only by becoming aware of this default mode in our system do we gain the possibility of subverting it.