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Irrational Optimism, Superstitious Fear

Might the lockdown help modulate affect and regain control?

How worried should we be, then? There are multiple possible outcomes—some better, others worse—and the probabilities of each are difficult to estimate. As a consequence, we may choose to focus on the worst possible outcome; or we may look away, like the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand; or we can do anything in between. I wish to look at these reactions more closely and say something about the effect of lockdown measures on anxiety and fear.

Person in yellow protective suit, relaxing with earphones on
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

Just why we think that we can make the worst possible outcome less likely by fearing it very strongly is an interesting question. Perhaps, we suppose that in dreading the worst, we show humility and that misfortune is befalls the arrogant—those who believe they have nothing to fear—not the humble. But that is a topic for another discussion. All I want to note presently is that we do sometimes react like the character in Silas Marner.

At other times, however, we take a very different tack: instead of staring danger in the face, we look away. Gavin de Becker, the author of The Gift of Fear, talks about this reaction. In the book, de Becker argues that fear is useful because it alerts us to real threats (it is in that sense that he calls fear a "gift"). He also discusses strategies for dealing with menace, for instance, what to do if someone is trying to kidnap you. De Becker says in an interview that when he tried to talk to people about such strategies, many outright refused to listen. They did not want to even entertain the possibility of becoming victims of a violent attack. Why refuse to listen? Part of the explanation may be that people think such frightening possibilities unlikely. Another part, though, may be this: it seems to us that if we think about horrendous scenarios, they will come to life in our minds and somehow become more likely to materialize as a result.

This latter, too, is a superstitious, "magical" way of thinking, but it is a mirror image of that described by Eliot in Silas Marner. In one case, we think we make the bad less likely by fearing it; in the other, by looking away.

Both strategies have downsides, no doubt. Fear and trembling may, instead of producing a consoling effect of the sort Eliot talks about, cause unnecessary stress. In this connection, I was recently reminded of an old fable I heard as a child: the cholera promised to kill 5000 people and leave for good. However, 50,000 people died. God confronted the cholera, “You said you will kill 5000 people and then leave, but there are 50,000 dead. Explain!” The cholera replied, “I killed 5000, exactly as I said. The other 45,000 died of fear.”

On the other hand, looking away clearly won’t do either. That’s particularly true if the people with their heads buried in the sand are those in charge. In this connection, Thomas Mann tells a cautionary tale in his novella Death in Venice. The story is about the city of Venice during a fictional cholera outbreak. The authorities in Venice deny the severity of the threat of cholera, and as a consequence, many tourists who could have been saved end up dying.

Is there a better strategy? There is something to be said for separating action from emotions. It is, perhaps, difficult to improve on the sane advice: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” More generally, it is not the panicked people who deal best with threats. Think of the astronauts on the Apollo 13 mission who, after an oxygen tank explosion, pulled it together and with the help of controllers (who did not panic either), improvised a way for three people to survive for four days although the Lunar Module lander spacecraft they were forced into after the explosion was designed to support two people for two days only. It's a remarkable example of what composure can do. It can save lives. There is often a way out no matter what the situation is, but we have to think to find it, not succumb to fear.

I would like to suggest here that the lockdown may have brought us all to a point at which we are less ruled by fear and more capable of reacting rationally, less like the superstitious people mentioned earlier, and more like the astronauts on Apollo 13. Not everyone can set fear aside and think calmly at first, but many of us can overcome panic and fright if given time to prepare.

I don't know how much the social distancing guidelines will, in the end, help achieve their intended purpose of flattening the curve. Much depends on how things will play out once restrictions are lifted and what will happen with rates of infection and death. But the measures may have had another useful function, a psychological one. They gave us the time we needed to get ready to face the threat.

Fear declines over time, even if the danger we face remains constant. That, I think, is just what may have happened in this case. People are doing much less stockpiling and taking more walks in the park now than they did several weeks ago. As a consequence, we are currently in a much better position to avoid exclusive focus on either the best or the worst possible outcome, and to be ready for both.

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[1] Eliot, G. (1861/1923). Silas Marner. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Co.