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Hypocognition, Trained Incapacity, and the Cost of Not Knowing

Americans defying stay-at-home orders are not fully to blame for their behaviors

Since mid-March, in response to the rapidly rising rate of COVID-19 cases, U.S. officials across all levels of government have ordered and advised Americans to stay inside their homes as much as possible and to engage in social distancing when outside. The officials’ warnings are based on the recommendations of the world’s leading medical researchers and reinforced by news reports of hundreds of thousands of people across the world getting infected and becoming dangerously ill.

Photo by visuals on Unsplash
Not all Americans have followed social distancing and stay at home orders.
Source: Photo by visuals on Unsplash

And yet, during the same time span, scores of Americans have left their homes and congregated in groups. You’ve probably seen the stories of college students partying during the mid- and late March spring break season in Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Mexico, and elsewhere.

Similarly, protestors in Michigan, Kentucky, and North Carolina swarmed state capitols this month to demand an end to stay-at-home orders.

It is difficult to fathom the partyers’ and protestors’ motivations.

Do they want to get sick? Do they care that, even if they don’t get sick, they might get other, more vulnerable people dangerously ill?

Those who ignore social distancing advisories and orders may be crazy, callous, or cruel, but they may also be suffering from hypocognition.

For 26 months in the early and mid-1960’s, American anthropologist Robert Levy took part in an ethnographic research project in the Society Islands in the South Pacific Ocean.

Levy published the group’s research in a series of articles and in the 1973 book Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands, which was selected as a finalist for the National Book Awards in 1974.

In his seminal book, Levy described how he and his research partners observed that the Tahitian islanders had no words to describe sorrow and grief. As a result, Tahitians who suffered personal losses said they felt sick or strange, not sad1. Levy concluded that the islanders’ inability to consider and convey an appropriate amount of sadness led to an above average suicide rate2.

Disturbingly, Levy also found that the Tahitian community’s desire to exercise social control led to the deliberate suppression of individuals’ capacity to understand and express sadness.

Levy defined the islanders’ inability to linguistically or cognitively form a representation of an object, category, or idea—in their case, sadness or grief—as hypocognition. Today, the concept of hypocognition is widely recognized by anthropologists, psychologists, linguists, and psychiatrists as a fundamental part of human behavioral research.

To be clear, hypcognition, as Levy defined it, is not the same as ignorance. To be ignorant of an object, category, or idea is to not have knowledge or awareness of its existence. To be hypocognitive is to lack the ability to even grasp an object, category, or idea, and to be unable to put words to it. Ignorance is a function of knowledge. Hypocognition is a function of a person’s social and cultural milieus.

In a 2018 Scientific American article, the University of Michigan psychology department’s Kaidi Wu and David Dunning provided contemporary examples of hypocognition:

In financial dealings, almost two-thirds of Americans are hypocognitive of compound interest, unaware of how much saving money can benefit them and how quickly debt can crush them. In health, a full third of people suffering from type-2 diabetes remain hypocognitive of the illness. They fail to seek needed treatment—despite recognizing blurry vision, dry mouth, frequent urination—because they lack the underlying concept that would unify the disparate warning signals into a single alarm.

Hypocognition, according to Wu and Dunning, “is about the absence of things.”

An April 9 New York Times opinion column written by Frimet Goldberger illustrates the role hypocognition has played during the current pandemic.

Goldberger writes of how the New York City metropolitan area Hasidic Jewish community she grew up in has tragically failed to engage in social distancing. As a result, one New York Hasidic community has the second-highest rate of COVID-19 infection in the country. The issue, she believes, is “a lack of information about this unprecedented threat—and what it will take to survive it” and a “general mistrust of science and a solid distrust of secular authorities in Hasidic communities, based partly on historical suffering at the hands of non-Jews and partly on a sense of divine protection.”

Just as Levy pointed out that Tahitian community leaders were to blame for failing to educate islanders about the importance of understanding and expressing grief, Goldberger faults Hasidic rabbis for the community’s COVID-19 crisis. The rabbis, she writes, “have largely failed to promote social distancing.”

It is important to note that social distancing, stay-at-home orders, and hypocognition are complex concepts that are not uniformly applicable to every community. The state capitol protestors who want the economy reopened may be naively putting peoples’ lives at risk, but the public officials and infectious disease experts calling for continued statewide shutdowns may similarly be unaware of the human costs of their policies.

Those asking and ordering Americans to stay at home may in fact be suffering from a close cousin of hypocognition: trained incapacity. American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen developed the concept in the 1930s, which he defined as "that state of affairs in which one's abilities function as inadequacies or blind spots."

To illustrate, a government advisor who is an expert in epidemiology may be entirely unaware of the realities of other fields of research. As a result of a single-minded pursuit of mastering epidemiology, he or she has been trained to be incapable of understanding domains like economics and mental health.

Consequently, the medical experts promoting stay-at-home orders must understand that there are, and will be, costs associated with an extended shutdown of businesses, schools, and other activities across the U.S. These costs include loss of human life due to suicide, as well as a significant decrease in quality of living due to job loss, an economic slowdown and social isolation. It is vital that medical experts, policy advisors and public officials take these costs into account when determining the length of shutdown orders.

There is a lot of grey area in the debate over stay-at-home and social distancing mandates. There are those individuals, some of whom may be hypocognitive, who recklessly disregard the rules and put themselves and others in danger.

There are other individuals, some of whom may have been trained to be incapable of understanding economics and mental health, who are advising and ordering constituents to isolate themselves for excessive lengths of time.

We must, then, carefully weigh, measure, and balance the arguments on both sides.

And, as much as possible, we must be aware of what we do not know.


1. Shweder, Richard A., ed. (1995). Culture theory: essays on mind, self, and emotion. Cambridge University Press. pp. 227–8. ISBN 978-0521318310.

2. Ottenheimer, Harriet Joseph (2009). The anthropology of language: an introduction to linguistic anthropology (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. p. 41. ISBN 978-0495508847.