Why we often rush to embrace actions that harm us

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Image credit: Benjamin Elliot on Unsplash

Group-think is a characteristic of all social primate species. Over millions of years of evolution, acting as a group meant much-increased odds for the survival of each individual within the group. Even today, after we’ve altered the world beyond recognition through the agricultural and industrial revolutions, the ape-brains of homo sapiens are still hardwired to conform to group norms without giving the matter much thought.

Our stories still praise group norms. As John Donne wrote, “No man is an island entire of itself.” Despite our modern notion of the lonesome cowboy or the individual super-hero we inherently recognize the importance of having a group that watches our back. Even the solitary hero has a group of some kind to provide essential support and when the hero goes off for a sulk it’s generally members of the group who look to coax them back or give them essential aid, as happens as far back as with Achilleus in Homer’s Iliad and in countless other tales up to the present time including the well-known Harry Potter stories.

Our desire for individual agency competes with the need for group cohesion. In times of ease and plenty we have room to indulge our individualism; during times of crisis our hardwired instinct is to comply with group norms and help reinforce them.

For most of our evolutionary history this hardwired instinct worked pretty well. “Run away from the burning forest!” or “Everyone grab a stick and help fight off the tribe that’s attacking us!” were straightforward situations in which instant group cohesion and obedience to the group norm were very helpful.

Today, however, our world is exceedingly complex. Actions taken in one place affect hundreds or even thousands of other events. Our ape-brains aren’t hardwired to understand large data sets and complexity. We thrive on the simple, the immediate.

And in times of modern crisis, that’s a huge problem.

As the media continues to stoke hysteria over covid-19, politicians know they must be “seen to be doing something.” They aren’t very bright, for the most part, but they do know one thing: they want to ensure sufficient votes to be re-elected. So that means taking action.

But what action? Sure, governments have access to experts, but the appearance of a new and somewhat virulent virus means that there will be hard choices to be made. Politicians hate hard choices because they’ve spent their lives twisting words and dodging consequences; dealing with difficult problems is a very distasteful matter for those who want the great mass of voters to like them. Expert advice, therefore, is filtered through the lens of “what will look best?” rather than “what will be best?”

Every health expert has said clearly that closing borders will have zero effect on the spread of disease but will adversely impact the delivery of essential medical supplies and the movement of essential medical personnel. So closing borders would be a very stupid thing for political leaders to do.

But what do we see? Everywhere, countries are shutting their borders because this seems like a strong action, an action to “protect” citizens. Illusion triumphs over intelligent action, as is too often the case in human affairs.

It’s easy to mock politicians, especially when they are running around like headless chickens while simultaneously attempting to appear strong and reasonable on national television. But they do stupid things largely because we’re eager for them to do so.

We humans hate ambiguity. We want action, even if that action is in fact self-harming. We feel more secure when someone says “do X” than when we’re left in a state of uncertainty. Many studies (references given at the end of this article) have shown how readily we sacrifice tangible benefits in order to reduce immediate ambiguity.

Worst of all is when everyone and their pet hamster is panicking.

Let’s take a look at a relatively trivial but blindingly obvious example of self-harm caused by panic. Back in late 1940 the British were convinced that invasion by Nazi Germany was inevitable. The British Army had been defeated by Hitler’s troops and had retreated from the beaches of Dunkirque in ignominy that summer. The USA was in typical isolationist mood and imagined itself immune to events happening elsewhere. No help was on the way. People were at least as afraid of the future as we are today with the much-hyped covid-19 infection. Just like today, people wanted their leaders “to do something.”

One smart & stable genius idea was to remove all road signs across the United Kingdom. Someone in government reasoned thus: “if we remove all the road signs it will slow down the Germans when they invade because they won’t know how to find places.”

So the British removed all their road signs in a wave of feel-good patriotism.

There were only two small problems with this smart & stable genius idea. The first, most obviously, was that the German Army had maps and compasses. Removing road signs would slow them by fractions of an hour at best. They’d already used their maps and compasses to blitzkrieg across most of Europe without any difficulty at all. The second problem was worse for the poor Brits: as the nation mobilized and thousands of trucks criss-crossed the land carrying essential supplies and people, they got hopelessly lost. People from Birmingham had no idea how to navigate the narrow lanes of Devon. People from Kent burned precious petrol trying to locate depots in Crewe and Carlisle. Many accidents were caused as drivers grew frustrated and went down roads they never should have been on.

So yes, removing all the road signs did slow things down: for the British themselves. No one has been able to calculate the cost in lost time and fuel, nor how many supplies ultimately never made it to their destination. But even a brief analysis of historical records shows that the cost was significant. And it wouldn’t have slowed an invading force by any noticeable increment.

Today with our panic over covid-19 we’re doing stupid things once again. Closing borders doesn’t work, but we’ve closed borders. This means that essential medical supplies and people are either not reaching their destinations or are taking far longer than is desirable.

Our entire supply chain for every consumable we depend on (medicines, medical equipment, food, etc.) relies on trucks to carry them from port to warehouse and from warehouse to final destination.

In France and in several other nations, truck drivers are finding they can’t complete their journeys because the petrol stations are closing. Drivers have nowhere to eat, nowhere to urinate, and fewer and fewer places to replenish the fuel their trucks need. So essential supplies (food, medicines) are increasingly stuck out on the roads, unable to reach the people who need them.

Scaled up, the problem is even worse. In order to save lives among the old and the sick, we’ve shut down the entire world. This means hundreds of millions of people are losing their jobs. In the West, politicians are considering plans to ease the pain but elsewhere the resources aren’t available. This means it’s probable that, far from the view of Western TV crews, hundreds of thousands of people will literally starve and millions more will suffer terribly.

And if we only care about ourselves we ought to be asking about the impact of the global shut-down on our supply chains. If everyone’s at home, who’s going to keep manufacturing the items we rely on? At some point soon, inventories will be depleted.

And then what?

We ought to be asking ourselves if paralyzing the world is the best way to react to covid-19. We ought to be asking if the costs we’re creating are worth the purported benefits. We ought to be asking if today’s panic measures are sustainable over even the medium-term. Because if they aren’t sustainable, what’s the point of rushing into them right now? As more and more scientists weigh in, the supposed benefits of “smoothing the curve” are less and less apparent. The nominal reasons for a wide variety of actions are turning out not to withstand inspection.

We ought to be asking more questions before rushing to embrace major policy decisions.

But we’re not asking these questions. Our ape-brains aren’t evolved to cope with this kind of problem. We’re far happier doing what we’re told by “leaders” and enforcing group norms so as to feel marginally safer. We’ll get angry at people who seem not to be conforming; we’ll be eager to punish those who we feel are somehow putting us at risk by their insouciance or by their questioning of authority.

That’s what we’re hardwired by evolution to do: enforce group norms, whatever they are.

It’s the same reason we burned witches, denounced Jews, and beat small children with sticks and belts. Whatever the group norm happens to be, the vast majority of us will embrace it because we’re hardwired to do so without question and without thought.

When we have difficult challenges we ought to be striving to address them as rationally as possible. Instead, we’re doing the opposite. We’re operating in the mode of “panic, fire, aim…”

In our modern complex world where actions have a thousand unforeseen consequences, this may turn out to be the biggest danger of all.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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