Rethinking "Catastrophic Thinking"

When overreaction helps the community even at personal cost.

Posted Mar 19, 2020

Nando Pelusi/Personal archive
Source: Nando Pelusi/Personal archive

Imagine you're hiking with your family and approach a precipice: some spots have rickety fences, some areas no fence at all, and the drop is rocky and forbidding. 

Your family runs toward the fenced drop, confident that they're safe — some slowly creep towards the unfenced area. You tell them to stop and assume that even the fenced area is potentially catastrophic for them. 

The difference in how they approach the edge with the fence provides instruction about how we should deal with unknown risks that grow exponentially. We don't intuit exponentials easily. It might seem like I'm overreacting when I tell my adventurous family to steer far clear of the edge and to not trust that wobbly fence. They're bummed by the fact that I am such a buzz-kill.

What seems like overreacting may come at personal cost to you, but it helps the group within which you reside. Temporary frustration spares you and your family members greater suffering. Distant risks are discounted, amidst a crisis we freak — and so the emotional pendulum goes. 

Our emotions of fear may take away some personal control, but cedes it to what benefits the group (Bloom). In this case the family.  Common cause is elicited as a heuristic — we can fight this together (Wilson). 

At this moment we are paradoxically a tribe again — a global tribe. There is a common enemy, and the tribe is no less than Homo sapiens. 

Wartime footing, such as in the current COVID-19 pandemic, requires a stringent coalition response.

Overreacting for the Group 

It's possible to overreact given one's personal status but overreact for the collective good. This is what's taken place all around the world in the last 10 days. Now, what role do individuals play in fomenting group action, in this case at global scale? Here, the interests of individuals (and the inability of individuals to think exponentially) was a problem for weeks, until, suddenly, people got it, though not because the threat to themselves was suddenly perceived as magnified. No, people "got it" because they understood the scale of the problem, and the fact that humanity itself is threatened, even if due to the good fortune of youth or underlying health, their personal risk is minimal.

The Overresponsive Sirens 

The outspoken author of Antifragile, Nassim Taleb correctly attacks academics, prognosticators, economists, and yes psychologists, calling them innumerate in effect, when they downplay second and third order effects of primary conditions. Taleb is the town cryer. 

Town cryers serve the group — the lonely jeremiads might be overreactions some of the time, but when they are right, their coalition survives. 

The public's comprehension of high risk is abetted by drastic, even extreme responses. If politicians had responded early to the jeremiads (Tweets by Taleb, Yaneer Bar-Yam, Joe Norman, and also, Geoffrey Miller, Perry Metzger, and Razib Khan), we might have had quicker reaction to COVID-19. Notice, I’m using the word “we.”

We don’t easily intuit exponential growth, but our emotions evolved to overreact — like a sensitive alarm system. Emotional alarms shift our awareness to ruminating a bit, seeing our place in the tribe, (a group-level locus) — and thus “catastrophic thinking” is a siren to us — like a rallying cry to a regiment, or a very sensitive alarm to the firehouse. Deirdre Barrett reminds us that, "we intuit dangers from flood, fire, human and animal attack easier 'cause they've been around for all of our evolutionary time. Disease has to some extent, but this sort of pandemic appeared only with agricultural societies—a second in human evolution."

Paranoia, in the face of extreme threats, can be functional and abets survival. Chronic anxiety at the individual level reduces immunity, the very thing we need during a pandemic, and thus warrants our attention. We can slow the pandemic.

Scott Adams, noted YouTuber and creator of Dilbert, has a list of items that will improve post inflection point (where the exponential growth curve turns down). I would expect that a greater collective understanding of exponential growth is another benefit.

A pandemic unites us, even as it separates us individually. Spiritus mundi and selfishness blur…at least until this pandemic subsides. 

References

Barrett, Deirdre. (2020). Personal communication. 

Bloom, Howard. (2007). The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History. Google Books.

Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. New York: Random House.

Wison, D. S. (2019). This view of life. Completing the darwinian revolution. New York: Vintage Books