Can We Stop the Pandemic and Save the Economy?

When faced with difficult tasks, our brains like the easy way out.

Posted May 20, 2020

The pandemic is not going away any time soon, and that makes the next phase of COVID-19 harder than the first. We must chart a course between controlling the virus and preserving the economy. That means some hard thinking. But our brains have a secret: They’ll do anything to get out of hard work. If we know what our brains are up to, we can keep them from playing tricks on us. 

Recent news reports make it seem that Americans disagree on how to approach the pandemic. But data from PEW tells a different story: "68% of Americans say that their biggest concern is that state governments will lift coronavirus-related restrictions on public activity too quickly.”

A Gallup analysis found that there is more to it than that: “The data show that Americans want their leaders to do what is hardest — balancing both objectives and moving forward on parallel tracks, addressing the virus and addressing the economy simultaneously.”

Americans are right to wonder if now is the time to lift restrictions when so little has changed since lockdowns began in March. We have made some progress, but many states are still reporting large numbers of new cases. We do not have a widely available treatment or a vaccine to prevent the illness. And we still do not have the staffing or supplies we need to get control through testing and contact tracing. We aren’t there yet. 

COVID-19 is as big a threat as ever, even as the news on the economy worsens. The unemployment rate in the U.S. is now 14.7%, the worst since the Great Depression. Can we save lives and move forward with economic recovery? To solve a problem this difficult, we have to overcome our own brains — because a situation like this changes the way our minds work. 

Ongoing stress negatively impacts our thinking.

Moran Cerf is a neuroscientist, business school professor, computer hacker, and one-time bank robber. He studies consciousness and how we make decisions. When I asked him to provide insight on the current crisis, he highlighted “high arousal events.” Hearing bad news about the economy or the virus, he said, triggers an “immediate signal to the body that we need to allocate all resources to immediate attention to the current experience."

This means that we sacrifice, “long-term thinking, rational planning…We become more primal and…focus on short-term survival at the expense of more critical complex evaluations of the situation.” 

Our leaders need to tackle that tricky analysis, but they can’t if their brains are in primal mode. And it’s not only our leaders who need to do rational planning; we all have hard choices to make.

The brain's response directs us to “protect ourselves from clear and present danger, but comes at the expense of exposing ourselves to more subtle and nuanced challenges," said Cerf. We prioritize whichever threat feels bigger to us right now. If it is job loss, we’ll march for the economy. If sickness from COVID-19 has touched us or our loved ones, we’ll insist on staying home. 

But when we ignore the complex problems, we make our situation worse.  “Unfortunately, those challenges often pose greater danger to us and are ultimately the ones that are likely to be more devastating,” Cerf explained.

Difficult choices make our brains hurt.

Right now it seems like the economy and pandemic control are competing goals. That creates another problem for our brains called cognitive dissonance

Dissonance is a term from music: It is the jarring sound of notes clashing, and it ruins harmony. Cognitive dissonance happens when our brains feel a clash in our thinking. The theory goes that we find inconsistencies in our thinking uncomfortable. That discomfort motivates us to resolve our thinking.

However, our motivation is to feel more comfortable, not to find hard answers. That’s why we tend to discount information that contradicts what we already believe.

Our brains prefer the easy way out. 

Given how brilliant it is, the human mind is remarkably lazy. According to a study co-authored by Robert Kurzban and Angela Duckworth, our brain considers how hard a task is going to be before doing it. The study pointed out that our executive function can only do so many tasks at the same time. So, the brain considers the "opportunity cost" before it starts a difficult task. It also evaluates the "next-best use" for the systems. Is something else it could be doing that might be more rewarding?

Once the brain decides the opportunity cost of a task is too high, it makes us feel uncomfortable. If we persist in the task, the brain reduces the effort we put in and our performance suffers.

Faced with a difficult task, our brain either avoids it or goes through the motions. 

How do we get our brains to do the hard thing? 

Americans want to do the hard thing during COVID-19. We need to achieve both control of the pandemic and economic recovery. But our brains are ready to fight us every step of the way. How can we overcome mental resistance to do the thinking we need to do? 

First, it helps to know that our brains decide how hard we are going to work before we get started. When we become aware of unconscious processes, we can make deliberate choices. In this case, to do the hard thing and face the difficult problem anyway. 

Second, we can resolve cognitive dissonance by understanding that the economy and pandemic control are not contradictory goals. These are not separate goals at all, but part of the same goal: human well being. And we need to solve them in tandem because they depend on each other.

When consumers are afraid, they don’t buy. If we reopen stores before we have control of the virus, 7 out of 10 Americans say they aren’t going shopping.

Understanding that these goals depend on each other makes room for elegant innovations. For instance, the curbside pickup. The line of cars outside my local sporting goods store is constant. 

Third, we can support the quality of how we are all thinking by doing it together. The mental workload is reduced when we feel a sense of social support. If we do the hard thinking for ourselves, and we communicate that, we make it easier for those around us to do it too. 

COVID-19 is not going anywhere fast, and this next part will be tough. But when we know how our brain works, we won’t let it plays tricks on us.

Originally published at Forbes.com