I see life through the lens of a neuroscientist. Politicians need to act under high uncertainty at the moment and there is a lot at stake. It’s a matter of life and death.
We are in fear and as soon as fear is involved, there is a high risk for for group-think. Fear is highly contagious and we learn it from others who are afraid themselves. We can’t think straight when we are in panic. Our prefrontal cortex for rational thinking shuts down and we go into fight or flight. That’s why we see people fighting over toilet paper these days.
People unite in the fight against a common enemy: the virus. This is a phenomenon well known in psychology. It has the positive effect of all of us acting as one, and it is truly powerful (This mechanism is regulated by the release of the neurochemical oxytocin.). But it comes with a downside. We become extremely single-minded and lose perspective of already existing threats such as cardiovascular diseases (18 million deaths per year), traffic accidents (1,35 million deaths per year), and air pollution (8 million deaths per year). We only fear our enemy: the virus. Nothing else matters.
We also become less innovative when we are in fear as the occurrence of Aha moments is positively correlated with a positive mood.
There is a high risk that cognitive biases systematically distort our thinking in such extreme situations and that we don’t do our best thinking.
Hyperbolic discounting: People fear the immediate risk of terrorism or a new virus, but ignore long-term challenges such as climate change or the impact of an unhealthy lifestyle – which might kill more people, just not immediately. We are not good at this long-term thing.
Fear of dread risk: “The psychological principle that makes us fear swine flu, avian flu or COVID-19 but not the common flu is called fear of dread risks. It is easy to elicit fear of episodes in which many people die within a short interval, such as plane crashes or epidemics. But when just as many or more people die over a longer period — as with car accidents or the seasonal flu — it is difficult to scare the public into wearing seat belts or getting vaccinated.” says Prof Gerd Gigerenzer who is the director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. (I highly recommend reading anything that he has written as he is an expert on risk literacy and decision making.)
Economists and CEOs see a real risk that we might soon experience a meltdown of our economic system and our society as a whole. This is not a discussion of money versus saving lives. The opposite is true. Our economic stability and our health are inextricably linked.
If we make too many mistakes, we risk killing more people than we are trying to save. A recession will impact life expectancy as well – just not as dramatically, and the media won’t report about every single person affected. Healthcare budgets will get cut going forward and we will see an increase in cancer deaths, suicides, and psychological disorders. These are all effects that could be observed during the Great Recession. GDP and life expectancy are linked, though the relationship is not simple. Covid-19 kills people, but so will a recession – just not immediately. A recession might also negatively effect climate change, education, and gender equality.
We need to find the delicate balance between short term measures and long term impact. Again, I’m not talking about lives versus money. I’m comparing life expectancy with life expectancy, short term and long term. We need to see the bigger picture and adopt a more holistic view.
We need an interdisciplinary think tank of scientists from many different fields. Virologists are essential to educate us about facts such as the exponential development of the curve, mortality rate, and contagiousness. But it is not in their role to see the big picture and the many implications our fight agains COVID-19 will have on the many different facets of society. We need economists who can calculate the impact on our economy. We need theoretical physicists who understand complex systems. We need health and safety experts who know how to act in an emergency. We need political scientists who understand the impact this will have on the delicate stability of our democracy in an unstable world. We need philosophers who can think about the incredible ethical dilemma of saving lives now, versus saving lives in the future.
Everybody who has ever worked with me knows that I’m usually positive, people-friendly and solution-oriented, and this hasn’t changed. I haven’t gone mad. I simply see the urgent need for more diversity of thought on this important topic. Why?
For the future of our children.
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