We are in a moment that has repeatedly been called “unprecedented” by politicians, medical researchers, doctors and financial experts alike. The corona virus pandemic is causing immense changes to the way we live across the world, literally overnight. Understandably, this is a highly stressful time for many, and people are attempting to gain a sense of control and preparedness where they can. In such an environment, it is very easy to focus on the difficulties, fears, and the magnitude of this global catastrophe, as well as all of the shortcoming in our preparedness it highlights. In fact, as human beings, we are primed by our human negativity bias to pay more attention to these things.
Human negativity bias is our innate and automatic tendency to filter out positive or neutral information and focus in on information that might represent a threat or loss to our vital interests (Marano, 2003). Vital interests include things like safety, social status and acceptance, basic needs, finances etc.
You need not look further then the headlines this week to see evidence of this. Of course, our negativity bias exists for a reason- we need to be sensitive to threat related information in order to notice it early and take action to keep ourselves safe. In the case of corona virus, our negativity bias has contributed to the remarkable ability of people world wide to align their behavior with public health recommendations. In fact, only a threat to global vital interests could cause a world full of diverse people with differing values and priorities to suddenly begin aligning their policies and behavior literally overnight. In cases where the response has lagged somewhat, it may be due to a combination of leaders in those areas having an unhelpfully low negativity bias (underestimating the risk) and personally valuing vital interests such as political popularity or economic outcomes above the vital interest of public health. Needless to say, when a real threat like corona virus is present, our negativity bias can be extremely helpful, as can the anxiety it produces, because it motivates us to take helpful action.
However, because we are living in a media saturated world, it is very easy to become ‘overdosed’ on threat information, even on a regular day. Add a pandemic, and what is usually helpful anxiety can quickly become overwhelming. It is important to feel enough anxiety to act in the best interests of both ourselves and our communities, but not to feel panicked. When we get overexposed to threat information and become highly anxious we can become paralyzed, try to avoid the problem, or desperately try to protect ourselves in ways that are not effective or required. Sometimes, when in this state, we may take actions that fail to account for the good of those around us (our families, communities etc.). Taking media breaks to ensure we do not become too consumed in threat information is important to help us stay only as anxious as we need to be to take helpful action.
Besides raising our anxiety, our negativity bias can cause us to miss important non-threat related information because it gets filtered out of our attention. This is most certainly an unprecedented time- and it has garnered a unprecedented response. Within that response, there are valuable lessons about being human, about how we are strong, and about what matters to us globally. These lessons are vital to learn now, because evidence suggests that we have more unprecedented challenges to come in future. We are living in a time of incredibly rapid technological change, political polarization, new health threats, and climate crisis. For us to be competent to face future challenges, we need to know what resources we have. We can see some of those resources at work right now, today, as we deal with the pandemic as a global community. Every fearful story is also a story of courage, every story of shortcomings and ill preparedness has a hidden story of resilience and innovation. Lets perhaps take a moment to look at some of the hidden stories of strength and learning that are occurring alongside this chaotic and challenging time.
Lesson 1: We are adaptable beyond our greatest expectations
If we had known clearly just a few short months ago that we would soon be facing closing borders, states of emergency, childcare and school closures, serious disruption to work and the financial system, we would have been panic stricken. However, while many people are anxious, there has not been widespread panic. The most reactionary thing I have observed is stores selling out of toilet paper!
The situation changes daily, with new policy directives, new impacts to different sectors, new closures to public spaces, and yet there have been few complaints. By and large, citizens appear to be rising to the challenge of these times. If we can acknowledge that we can cope effectively with broad and sudden changes to society, perhaps it will ready us to make the other changes we may need to make to meet other future challenges. Perhaps we might feel more able to choose these changes earlier, before a crisis point like this one.
Lesson 2: We will sacrifice willingly when it matters enough
Given the large populations across the world being affected, it would be impossible for governments to enforce the public health recommendations without large scale willing co-operation from the public. Many of the recommendations being adopted cause inconvenience at best and serious challenges at worst. Closures of businesses and childcare have disrupted people’s ability to work and pay their bills. Self isolating or social distancing means avoiding enjoyed activities, and respecting social constraints that can be isolating and unpleasant. Buying only what is needed can cause feelings of uncertainty and scarcity. Cancellation of vacations is disappointing and a financial risk, yet many did so even in advance of government directives.
This reminds us that ultimately, there are some universal things (global vital interests) that unite us in common humanity. When one of these things is threatened, we are reminded of the ways we are more similar then different, and we become more connected. Western individualistic societies have promoted competition and looking out for individual needs, largely eroding informal and community support and connections. As social services (which stepped in to fill this gap in these societies) become increasingly unable to provide assistance to members of communities due to closures, we are seeing informal community supports re-emerge. People are connecting on social media to share supplies when stores are sold out. others are offering help to neighbors, and checking in more often on seniors. Times like this remind us of how interconnected we really are, and this plays out from individual kindnesses in everyday interactions to willingness to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. In this moment in which we are faced with a threat to a human vital interest (health) it may help us to recognize what other vital interests matter enough for us to willing sacrifice for.
Lesson 3: We take care of one another during times of need
In fact, many people have come together online though social media to create local groups where community members can ask for and find help. For example, as childcare centers close, some registered early childhood educators have offered childcare services to those in healthcare to help them continue to work and fight the virus. Elderly people and those with compromised immune systems have made arrangements for others to pick up groceries, prescriptions and other necessities for them. Online groups have sprung up using via video chat platforms to connect people for music and yoga classes, and to stay connected socially even when we cant be together in the same space. When we know we can depend on one another to care for each other, we may be more willing to think differently about how we want to live and care for one another int he future.
Lesson 4: We have the power to make choices to shape the world and how we live
So often, in reasonably stable societies, it feels impossible to make change. It can seem as though society is either to divided to make meaningful change, or too complacent. The very speedy response to the COVID-19 pandemic shows that we can in fact make deeply disruptive and uncomfortable changes across the globe overnight, when we are united in what matters to us. In this current situation, it was clear that what matters to us is health, meeting basic needs, and stability. At the end of the day, it is people and human decisions that make things happen in the world. When enough people speak with one voice, that changes can be far reaching. However, even when we are divided by our various beliefs, values, and politics, we as individuals continue to have the ability to make choices and changes in our own lives.
The current crisis showcases the importance of knowing what our values and vital interests are. Both as individuals and as a human species, it is those values and vital interests that motivate us to take action when they are threatened. The lessons in our response to the COVID-19 pandemic can help us grow our courage as people and as nations who have choices to make about how we handle challenges and threats. When we choose to act from a place of courage, rather then to react from a place of fear, we have a better chance of acting sooner and more planfully to avoid future crises. Imagine knowing that you could take on your biggest dream assured and confident that you had the resources to meet the challenges along the way. How many times do we dream big, but fail to act because we are not confident enough in our strengths? Because we did not notice the strengths due to our negativity bias? Imagine how it might change the conversation about climate change if all players approached it with full faith in human willingness, adaptability, and capacity to care for one another? While its important to notice all the risks and hardships about our current situation, lets not miss the lessons along the way.