Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

Opinion | Took the coronavirus threat lightly? It’s your mind, silly

Our brain’s weak response to invisible threats could explain public laxity, though Kerala had an answer

One of the most pertinent questions to have arisen during this Covid-19 crisis is why so many people, from world leaders to ordinary citizens, have treated the threat so casually.

Local authorities in Wuhan did not take ophthalmologist Dr. Li Wenliang’s warning of the new virus seriously. This could be attributed to low awareness of the virus and how contagious it was. But by the time the disease reached Italy, more than a month had passed. By the time it reached the shores of the US, thousands around the world had died. Enough was known to policymakers within a few weeks. But this still did not translate into appropriate actions. Why?

At a rational level, one expects even an ordinary citizen to understand the gravity of such a pandemic and behave accordingly. But the truth is that humans do not behave rationally. Policymakers should realize that the human brain takes decisions based on mental models that evolved over millions of years. Watching 15-minute discussions on television do not change these models.

The human brain was designed for a world where dangers came predominantly in the form of predators. And they were visible. On seeing a danger, a fight-or-flight response would automatically get triggered. Humans started hearing about invisible dangers like disease-causing viruses only in their recent evolutionary history. In his article Slow Ideas in The New Yorker, Atul Gawande explains why anaesthesia had very rapid adoption after discovery, while antiseptics never really took off. Anaesthesia was solving a visible problem, and its benefit could also be seen. But what antiseptics try to eradicate—germs—are invisible. The coronavirus too is an invisible problem. So, it is not easy to motivate people to respond to it.

The human brain evaluates the risk associated with an object or event based on one’s past experience with it. It is very difficult for it to anticipate the risk of an event it has never experienced before. Matthew Broderick was director of operations at the US department of homeland security during Hurricane Katrina. Since no hurricane of such intensity had ever hit the US before, it seems he could not properly evaluate the risks. The record suggests he ignored several signs of an impending disaster, and simply went home on the night of that hurricane. On the Covid-19 pandemic, according to The New York Times, US President Donald Trump admitted, “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before." The response was lethargic because the world had no prior experience of a risk of this nature. But the Kerala government’s response was swift because its handling of the 2018 Nipah epidemic was still fresh.

For millions of years, humans lived in the moment. The human mind started thinking of the future only recently, with the invention of agriculture. So, the mind’s basic tendency is to discount the future, negative events possibly even more. Humans also display an overconfidence bias, which makes them believe they are more capable than they actually are. This bias and the tendency to discount negative outcomes ahead may have made people ignore Covid-19 warnings.

How do we tackle these inherent characteristics of the human brain?

The coronavirus hit Kerala and Italy almost at the same time. But unlike Italy’s, the Kerala administration’s strategies to deal with it are laudable. For the most part, it vested the responsibility of solving the problem not with individuals, but local communities. Thus, an individual’s problem was converted into a social one. Local committees were constituted to monitor and help those in quarantine. This created new social norms, with the vigilance of these panels creating a fear of social sanctions. Despite having more than 50,000 people under observation, Kerala has not recorded a single death so far.

What could have been done better? In the initial days of the outbreak, there was a mad rush to use masks. Later, health experts said that masks were not required for healthy people. But this advice frittered away a behavioural advantage of mask-wearing. Masks had given the pandemic, an invisible problem, a noticeable face. A large number of people wearing masks would have clearly communicated the much-needed message that these were not times of business as usual. Once a person adopted the new behaviour of wearing a mask, his or her attitudes toward the threat would have changed. It could have also acted as a gateway behaviour, making the adoption of additional behaviours like hand-washing easier. The government should have encouraged the use of masks while solving the problems of their hoarding and wrong use. This could have resulted in better risk internalization and acted as social proof of the problem’s acknowledgement.

According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, humans have the cognitive ability to maintain connections with only a small number of people. For example, one’s sympathy group, the people whose death would be devastating, is 15 people at most. The coronavirus warnings should have focused on the impact of one’s behaviour on this sympathy group. This could have been far more effective in conveying Covid-19’s dangers than talking about its effects on the country.

In times of a crisis like this, one can speak about risks in the language of numbers and exponential progression. But risks can also be explained in terms of feelings. Our brain understands the latter better.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm

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