Blind Spot: Failure of Imagination and Existential Threats

Intelligent, worry-prone humans fail to take predictable catastrophes seriously.

Posted Mar 15, 2020

Let us start with the idea that understanding our evolutionary history and how our minds developed can help us function better today. And how ignoring this can lead to under-appreciating our shortcomings.

I remember the first time I fully appreciated the term failure of imagination. It was the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The inability to anticipate hijackers flying planes into buildings was a failure of imagination. We were prepared to stop or minimize the carnage of traditional hijackers who did not want to die but instead wanted to get somewhere or get attention for a cause—because that is what occurred before. Airline security was built on that model.  

But we did not anticipate the notion that hijackers would learn to fly a plane and use it as a weapon on a suicide and homicide mission. Imagination is required to take an idea seriously until it occurs. Indeed, there were apparently mentions of this possibility in government documents before 9/11 that were ignored. Failure of imagination.

How can an intelligent, worry-prone population fail to anticipate predictable dangers? You might expect the opposite. But the explanation lies in how evolution designed our mind. 

Throughout our evolutionary history, humans have dealt only with imminent threats.  They either survived them or not. For example, they were confronted with a predator, and they either escaped or were eliminated from the gene pool. Those who escaped from the imminent threats were selected for (they were more likely to be represented in future generations), and that psychological mechanism is what exists in our brains today.

For those of us who study anxiety, it is evident that most people are afraid of things that are imminent: being the victim of a crime, someone judging them negatively, being bitten by a dog, a plane crash, losing one's job. Not to say all of these things do not matter—because they do—but on a much smaller scale compared to existential threats.  In fact, individuals can be preoccupied with these more imminent concern leading to impairment in their day to day functioning (e.g., suffer from an anxiety disorder).

Since our mind evolved to deal with imminent threats, for most of us, there does not seem to be much attention to future, more abstract dangers (e.g., viral pandemics). These concerns were not selected for by the short-sighted process of survival of the fittest and natural selection. For example, worrying about the delayed health consequences of eating junk food, saving money for retirement, the impact of not being vaccinated on the population at large, misuse of antibiotics leading to drug-resistant bacteria, climate change, nuclear war, pandemic—are not things we take very seriously.  Just look at any reputable expert on these topics and see if they believe we are well prepared for some of these potentially inevitable occurrences. 

I think you will agree with the point I am making here. Until a few weeks ago, a pandemic seemed so 1918!   Nothing to be too concerned about in our modern, technologically sophisticated environment.  Well, that assumption did not work out well as we desperately try to avoid an invisible but very serious imminent threat.

What is striking to me, and in support of my premise, is that apparently a group of scientists who study infectious disease had predicted this very occurrence. They did not know when a pandemic would occur—but they knew it was inevitable from the way viruses behave and as a result of the increase in globalization.   After I listened to several podcasts where these experts were interviewed (who are now imminently relevant as we pray they can solve this and thus in the news) —and knowing nothing about viruses myself—it became clear that they had publications going back decades predicting this very thing—and several worse scenarios that still may occur.  

So how did we respond as a group of citizens? In 2018, the U.S. government allowed the group that was responsible for leading the response in the event of a deadly pandemic to dissolve.  There were not protests that I am aware of .  Big failure of imagination! I bet we wish that group had been in existence and was fully funded, developing treatments and inoculations for coronaviruses and the like so that we were well-prepared today. 

But if you want more evidence of the failure of imagination. Those who lead us at almost every level reacted to the coronavirus as though it was a surprise, despite an approximate two-month warning since it appeared in China and began to race through other countries. You would think that even with the failure of imagination, we would mobilize to create enough masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers—hardly technological challenges -- when you have a two month lead in!  How complicated can this be?  Not very—but thanks to the failure of imagination, we had to see the effects before it was taken seriously. And thus, a severe shortage of these items exists even two-plus weeks into the pandemic, seriously compromising our ability to decrease the spread of this contagion.

The main reason for this essay is to focus on how we can learn from this now. My suggestion: Recognize the blind spot that exists in our brain thanks to evolutionary design. Acknowledge our shortcomings in this area.  And don't forget that we  -- by our inherent nature -- under appreciate these threats as a function of our evolutionary development.

Those worried about future catastrophes and existential threats were not selected for. Instead, individuals who dealt well with imminent, specific threats were.  And thus, as we unfortunately see today, we ignore existential, catastrophic events until the effects become imminent and much more challenging to deal with.  And then we find our lack of planning leads to basic consequences, such as not being able to provide hand sanitizer for everyone to try to stop the transmission of the illness. That is an unfortunate but perfect illustration of this shortcoming!  Once it is imminent, we compete for these resources.

When we get through the coronavirus epidemic, I urge everyone to keep this blind spot in mind: the failure to be able to imagine that which has not happened. Let's not just say, "Whew, we made it!" and get back to business as usual. If there is a silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic, it is to realize that we should not ignore scientists who warn about these unlikely, unpredictable, but catastrophic events. Because once they occur, it is too late to rewind them. And we are all experiencing the effects of that today.   I am writing this now because unfortunately our memory of these type of events quickly fade and we go back to our baseline expectations.  

In case you are wondering, here is the one that I discuss with my students, who listen to me drone on about human nature and evolutionary blind spots, that keeps me up at night. Let's not have a failure of imagination on this one and think about how to deal with this, so we are not trying to rewind the effects as we are doing now.