Creativity, COVID Style
Don't fall prey to rigid thinking and help your neighbor to boot!
Posted March 21, 2020
I went to Costco the other day. I live in Northern VA and this Costco is within about 25 minutes of three other Costco’s. One of the men working there said “good luck” as I was going in.
I said, “I’ve never seen the parking lot this full.”
“This morning we counted 1600 people waiting to get in when we opened,” he replied.
Inside, the toilet paper was gone and bottled water was quickly disappearing. Such behavior is annoying because it fuels fear and makes little sense given reality – toilet paper is easily produced and the water supply is not threatened. In fact, it's riskier for you to go face the crowds to get the water. It gets worse when people try to profiteer, like the person from Tennessee who tried to price gouge hand sanitizer. It fans the flames of fear.
Creativity can help. Creativity is how we realize that the mob’s perspective is not the right one (e.g., people use about one roll of toilet paper a week – one Costco package would last a family of five a month and a half). Creativity helps us see the obvious alternatives to our usual method (e.g., no hand sanitizer? They invented this crazy alternative called soap and water). But most importantly, it turns the threat into an opportunity. Teleworking techniques are, by necessity, advancing quickly, which may reduce commuting even when there is no pandemic. Even better, sometimes people turn their creativity to developing ways to help each other.
The problem is that when we rely on our habits during trying times, it often makes the situation worse. What’s more, trying times make us revert to our habits because of what Staw, Sandelands & Dutton called threat-rigidity (1981).
Threat-rigidity1 research showed that when people are under threat, it narrows rather than expands their cognitive adaptability. Staw et al. (1981) used this to explain why big organizations, who should know better, go under because they stayed committed to strategies that were demonstrably bad. But the brilliance of the work was to show how the effect’s roots are in the way people react to uncertainty.
I made a simplified model of the threat-rigidity process below (Figure 1). It starts with a threat (e.g., quarantine) that produces uncertainty (e.g., I might run out of stuff) which leads to fear. Fear is unpleasant so people will try to do something to reduce it, either by reducing the threat or by limiting the uncertainty.
But what to do? If it seems like we can’t affect the threat (e.g., the quarantine decision is outside our control), then we try to reduce uncertainty by defaulting to habit. Habitual responses bring certainty because we have done them before and we know how they work. In contrast, we avoid creative responses because creativity by its very nature brings uncertainty (Figure 2). We have to explore the unknown, and that is the last thing we need because it creates more uncertainty and hence more fear. Besides, when we have habits (stock up on essentials!), why not use them to feel a bit more in control?
But here is what happens: Our habitual responses create other problems (Figure 3). Everyone stocking up on supplies creates shortages, and seeing empty shelves makes the threat worse. This creates a feedback loop that causes people to get more fearful, hit their habits harder (OMG I’ve been to three stores and no TP! Now Jerkwads.com is selling a roll of Charmin for $40!), and it makes the problem seem worse.
Instead, what we need to do is think more creatively about what will reduce the actual problem (e.g., what do I really need to worry about if I am quarantined?). It is tough to do this because in the short term, it may increase uncertainty (Food! Will I have food?!? The chicken is all gone!). But when reason prevails you can be more adaptive in your assessment (there is still a ton of other food available, and stores can restock while we eat what we all just hoarded). That reduces threat (Figure 4).
Changing your mindset
Jennifer Mueller has an entire book detailing why threat makes people adopt a fixed “how/best” mindset, and how to get over that. She also describes how it is not enough to change your own mindset, you have to help others change theirs, and then spread this throughout your community.
Much as I would like to say, “Here are the three things she says you can do to get out of the how/best mindset,” that IS the how/best mindset. Instead, I will say that while you are social distancing and staying home, take some time to read her chapters 4, 5, and 6 to get a handle on how we overcome threat-rigidity. This will help you even when we are not in pandemic mode.
But I can give you a place to start that will reduce threat-rigidity: Help others. Why does that work? Because when you help others you experience less threat—it's not your problem. Further, much of the uncertainty (“but what about X! Y! Z!”) will not be as looming because you have an outsider perspective, so you will feel less uncertainty. Finally, you may not have habits, but even if you do, these habits may be news to the person you are helping. In the best scenario, your habit will be an insight to your neighbor.
The result? The bad links in the threat-rigidity process (Figure 4) are weakened and the good ones strengthened. More importantly, we help each other and that is how any society gets through disasters.
(If you want to leave a comment, please leave a helpful suggestion that communities can use during this time of crisis—we'd appreciate it.)
Staw, B. M., Sandelands, L. E., & Dutton, J. E. (1981). Threat rigidity effects in organizational behavior: A multilevel analysis. Administrative Science Quarterly, 26(4), 501-524.
 This is my favorite research paper of all time.