Behavior Wars, Pt. 2: Role Models

In order to succeed at weakening the pandemic, we must address the process of role modeling. It is a significant factor that shapes our behavior.

Babies follow the lead of the adults in their lives, right from the start. You giggle, they giggle. This is how bonding occurs. Later, they play at doing what they see adults doing. When they are around other children their age, they observe and follow each other. This is how we get socialized. And it never stops. We keep being strongly influence by what others around us are doing, especially those in positions of power.

When it comes to who we model ourselves after, the powerful, rich and famous have especially large sway. Inherent in us is the belief that we will do better if we are like the people who are doing the best in our society and are in control. There is some truth to that. If you want a job and you look, think and act like the person interviewing you, you are more likely to get hired. Unfair, but true.

Some people, when they acquire positions that carry becoming a role model, respond in a conscientious, responsible manner. They are even careful to not give opinions about things they really don’t understand because they know large numbers of people will be influenced by what they say. It is one mark of professionalism that you know what you know, you know what you don’t know, and you have the self-discipline stay in the lines.

Other role models are not careful with their power to influence others. A man in Africa died because he followed President Trump’s suggestion that a certain medication might protect people from COVID-19. Now, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan reports that his state received “hundreds” of calls after President Trump suggested at a press briefing that ingesting household disinfectants could be a treatment for the coronavirus. Mr. Trump was dangerously wrong about these things, but that doesn’t stop his opinion from carrying more weight than it rationally deserves. He is, after all, practicing medicine without a license with the full weight of his position.

We might wonder how you could hold daily press conferences not following social distancing guidelines well after you have prescribed them for the nation and imposed them on the press corps sitting right in front of you. How could you require Dr. Fauci to stand right behind you, shoulder to shoulder with other officials? How could you say you won’t wear a face mask just minutes after telling the whole country to wear them? How could our leaders not be following their own advice on such a deadly matter? The answer is worth knowing, and it is worse than we might hope.

The problem isn’t just one person. I’ve looked at reviews of research on how power affects people. As I go through the list, you may think both of examples and exceptions. We can be especially grateful for the exceptions.

The common saying should be extended like this: “Do as I say, not as I do, because I am not a good role model. Don’t follow my example.” Here’s why. Power tends to reduce people’s concern for safely and loss. When people get more power, they tend to get more strongly focused on self-interest rather than what is best for others. When they make decisions for others, they may not even intend for those decisions to apply to themselves. I will repeat and underline. They may not even intend for those decisions to apply to themselves or those in their inner circle. The more important power is to a person, the more likely these characteristics are to be true of them.

Let’s show some gratitude to people who are exceptions. How do some people in role model positions not succumb? They do so by having sound moral principles that they keep in front of themselves routinely. They know they must rely on them. With humility, they recognize that they can learn from unimportant people and they routinely seek them out for their insights. Want to know how to make hospitals safer? Research shows that the keenest observers of the total situation are the ones with the least control. So, ask the people who disinfect the rooms what they observe. They may be noticing wht others are too preoccupied to see.

As restrictions are lifted, we will notice more who is following best practices and who is not. If there are many who are not, one thing that will counteract the tendency to follow them is that we will rightly see them as a threat to our safety and the safety of others. Also, we can keep from following lax behavior by keeping our principles in front of us and letting them be what shapes how we think and act.

Just like children, we are also influenced by our peers. And they are influenced by us. Let’s take that responsibility conscientiously by being consistent in following best practices when we are in public. This can matter more than who people see on TV, especially when it is pervasive and consistent. We can be hopeful about that.

Behavior Wars, Pt. 1: What’s the Point of this Suffering?

Managing this pandemic is a lot like managing a flood in a controlled watershed. The engineers can only let a certain amount of water through control points at any time without unleashing total disaster.

In the case of the pandemic, though, we have the advantage of being able to slow the rate of snow melt in the mountains by slowing the rate of infections. That is the point of the behavioral restrictions, so we don’t have more COVID-19 cases than a hospital can handle. We don’t want to flood out and totally destroy the medical system. The behavioral practices are succeeding. The daily rate of new cases is slowing. Still, many medical systems have not returned to being able to also do the surgeries and other treatments we want them to do.

I don’t think all of our leaders are reinforcing the gains enough with certain parts of our society. Too many of us are losing site of the goal and the progress. They are only seeing the suffering that is being caused by the behavioral restrictions and want it to end. Too many are beginning to feel that continuing the restrictions is becoming pointless. Some of them are now taking to the streets and pressuring decision makers.

Part of what is happening psychologically is also that people are losing the big picture. That happens when the brain is under stress. It can’t take in as much information. Physically, we actually lose peripheral vision when under stress. The brain has to protect itself from being overwhelmed with information, so it blocks things out. The focus then becomes on what is most immediate. That is when we need each other’s help to keep perspective.

What is the Distance in Social Distancing?

With social distancing, how far apart should you to be from the next person?

Six feet? We all know that, right?

One problem with how we think about a standard like 6ft social distancing is that our minds tend to turn the minimum into a maximum. We forget that we are told that six is the minimum safe distance and that there are situations where it needs to be more than six. We want the minimum to be standard for every situation. So, six always becomes the answer. While this makes things a lot simpler, and the brain likes that, it is a potentially deadly error with COVID-19. What, then, is a safer way to think about social distance?

At the recent graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy, the cadets were made to sit 8-10 feet apart, not just the standard 6. This is because the reason for the rule, the “why” of it, is to keep each other safe from what we are all expelling from our lungs. And that distance depends on what we are doing with our lungs in shared space. The cadets would be cheering. The contents of their lungs would be projected farther than if they were just sitting quietly. So, the organizers wisely went with 8-10 feet, not just six.

Since safe distance depends upon what we and others are doing with our lungs, we need to know what that is to know what the safe distance is

With what we are doing with our lungs, we are told if everyone is resting, 6ft is apparently fine. With just about anything else, it is looking inadequate. While the research needs to catch up, at this point it looks like 6ft is not enough if anyone talks, laughs, sneezes, is walking, biking, running, deep breathing, doing yoga or other exercise. Why? Because with those activities the lungs are being emptied with force. And force creates distance for what is in the lungs.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen that anyone yet has looked into minimal safe distance for singing, like singing in church or in a choir. Nor have I seen anything about how far the virus goes when blown through wind or brass instruments. Musicians are taught to project, and that might mean the contents of the lungs go a greater distance than in other activities. We shall see. Musical groups are eager to get back together. But that may not be wise without the research.

In addition to knowing what people are doing with their lungs, we need to understand the shared air space. Will we be rebreathing other people’s air? Is the space enclosed or open? Is the air stagnant? Is there air flow that will dissipate the virus or relocate it? Which way is the wind going? Are there people there? This all takes situational awareness. And that situational awareness needs to occur when our minds are on other things as well. We need to be good at it while multitasking. We will need to have these calculations become automatic.

One other mistake to watch for in our thinking comes from the symbolic meaning face masks carry. Do they mean we are safe, or do they mean the situation is dangerous? If we take them to mean we are safe, we will be fooled into thinking we don’t need to social distance. Masks do not eliminate the possibility of transmission. They only reduce them. Because of this common cognitive error, authorities feel the need to keep reminding us that a face mask is not a substitute for social distancing. It is meant simply as additional protection. They are right to remind us of this. The real meaning of the mask is that the situation is not safe.

But face masks and social distancing also convey the important message that we care about each other. Let’s focus on that.

Evaluating Governors’ Reopening Decisions

Was it a good decision, or was he just lucky? Shaun couldn’t decide which used car to buy. It was all too confusing. The lot had 17 in his price range. He just picked a number and counted down the list till he got to that number and bought it. It turned out to be a great car for him. Good decision? or just lucky?

Bad decision, or just unlucky? Mia consulted with a consumer rating service for brand and model reliability. She found a highly rated car and had it looked over by a mechanic. She got a green light and bought it. In the first 6 months, the car had one problem after another. Bad decision? or just unlucky?

We tend to evaluate decisions based on their outcomes; a process that does not actually help us learn to make better decisions. This is such a problem, it even has a name, outcome bias, and has been studied. This is important now because our nation’s governors are making decisions about reopening activities. They vary somewhat in the decisions they have already made to deal with the pandemic. What is the best way to evaluate those decisions?

People who are experts in decision making stress the importance of the process of making a decision more than the outcome. Outcomes are not totally within our control, but process is.

On the face of it, some governors seem to have decided by wishful thinking. “I would like to think we are the kind of people who don’t need government to tell us what to do,” for example.

Or, “I decide by my gut. I don’t need a matrix.” Unfortunately, the research on gut decisions only shows it to have value in people with a lot of experience in what the decision is about, true experts. They have a lot of data and experience they draw from unconsciously. For the rest of us, the gut just tends to serve biases, likes and dislikes and self-interest. But gut feelings can carry a strong sense of certainty. “I just have a good feeling about this.” Certainty, it turns out, is not an indicator of being right. Certainty is just a feeling. The relationship between certainty and being right is no more than chance. I wish it weren’t so.

Other governors consult experts, research and data and do so every day. They say things like “the virus will tell us when it is safe.” They mean the data on the virus. They are systematic. They have decision trees. They set criteria in advance for what the numbers need to look like for a certain step to be taken. They also realize that there are too many variables to be certain of an outcome to their decisions. They expect to open, close, open, make adjustments – who knows how many times in the process of adjusting to what is happening with the virus. But also, what is happening with our behavior that helps or hinders the spread of the virus.

While we will feel compelled to judge the decisions governors are making, the only fair way to do so requires knowing the soundness of the decision-making process they used. Some may be lucky, while others may not. That said, we must remember that much of the success or failure rests with our behavior, not just theirs.

Whose Risk Assessment?

Bad joke from the old “famous last words” series: “Hey guys! Watch this!” It is said that in normal circumstance, half of emergency room visits happen this way.

I remember when a family member injured her knee skiing. She said to my brother, a physician, that she was okay, she just needed to sit a bit. His follow-up to her, “How good are you at knowing when you need help?”

Some of us are not very good at assessing risks in general and risks associated with the pandemic in particular. Various distortions can happen. We might think things are safer than they are. Some people smell gas when others don’t. Then whose judgment do we go with? Some people think the risk of COVID-19 to themselves is low. They may be right. Then they get sick and suffer from an overwhelmed medical system. Famous last words.

In the other extreme, “The sky is falling!” when it is simply sprinkling. This tends to be the case for people who are anxious in general. They frequently think things are worse than they are and hopefully learn that about themselves.

A great divide is occurring in our society over what the COVID-19 risks now and going forward. Many people who are following best practices consistently either assess the risk to be great or they are willing to comply with what the experts and authorities are asking or requiring of them. Some of these people are in fact at greatest risk of death or severe illness should they contract the disease.

An important question in risk assessment is risk to whom or what? It can’t just be the risk to me when the consequences affect others. With the pandemic, a first consideration has been the risk of overwhelming emergency services and hospitals. That is the point of flattening the curve and getting the number of new severe cases per day down to a manageable level. Then we can resume treatments that have been put on hold, like non-emergency surgeries and standard medical appointments. The people who should be best at assessing risk are those with the greatest amount of information. And they need to be people not just concerned with self-interest.

The second question is what information is needed to adequately assess risk. The average citizen does not have access to all of the data. Nor do they know what they don’t know but need to know. The experts do and they inform the civil authorities whose responsibility to stay informed is far greater than the rest of us.

So, the situation calls for us to evaluate how much weight to give to our own and other people’s assessments. How objective am I, are they? How much access to data do I, they, have? The civic mindedness, love your neighbor question is our willingness to accommodate those who assess risk to be greater than we do. We might be willing to accommodate out of concern for our neighbors. We want them to feel safe, not just be safe, now and when things open up more.

Making Reopening Successful

“You would never know there was a pandemic going on.”

Following best practices got us to the point where reopening activities may soon be possible. Then, our behavior will continue to be a deciding factor in whether it is successful or harmful. But applying coronavirus best practices to old settings is not going to be easy. The Florida beaches have been reopened and a reporter noticed she was the only one with a face mask. She was the only one doing social distancing. For everyone else, it seemed to be a normal day at the beach. One person interviewed even said it was a welcome break from having to think about the pandemic. That will not be sustainable.

This is exactly what public health officials feared would happen and will continue to happen. The beachgoers had not prepared themselves mentally to carry safe practices into their beach experience. There was no group pressure to conform. So, they behaved at the beach the way they always have.

One of the things working against successful re-opening of activities is state specific learning. What we learn in one setting does not automatically generalize into other settings. We have to be deliberate about it or it won’t happen. What is more likely to happen is that we will be like the beach goers and act like we did before.

A helpful process for this is mental rehearsal. Before going to the beach or back to work, you imagine as clearly as you can doing so while following social distancing, wearing a facemask, keeping control of what you touch, and doing good hand cleansing. Repeat this several times before you go. The repetition will give you really good momentum and help you see when you or others start to deviate. We may need to give other people reminders, something many of us are uncomfortable doing. But that is part of being in this together.

Another big thing that shapes our behavior is how those around us are acting. When they don’t follow best practices, we are less likely to. We don’t want to be the only one. But when we keep the behavioral standards in mind before entering the situation, we are less likely to drift to how others are acting.

Already, in the essential service of grocery stores, more and more managers are feeling the need to protect their employees from careless customers. They are considering eliminating in-store shopping and only doing online shopping with home delivery or curbside pickup. This means other customers are witnessing careless behavior that are public health hazards and letting it go.

Careless behavior in a store is not just between the customer and the employee, it is between the careless customer and everyone else present. So, to be successful with having open stores and businesses, we need to exercise more mutual accountability.

Since beginning these blogs on the psychology of dealing with the pandemic, I have stressed mutual vulnerability and mutual responsibility. Those are what motivated following best practices. Now we must add mutual accountability. It is through mutual accountability that new behaviors become the norm. This is really hard. Holding others accountable and being held accountable by peers is very uncomfortable. It works best if we assume good intentions on everyone’s part. What we are doing then is bringing a person’s attention to what they had lost track of. Then our response will be to thank the other person, not get upset or defensive.

Even if the person does not care about best practices, this approach of assuming the best has the greatest chance of bringing out the best in them. If it brings out their worst, then they need to experience that they won’t just get away with putting others’ health at risk.

It can be difficult to act graciously when you feel unsafe or angry. If we remind others as we would like to be reminded, it won’t be woke scolding. It is really a way of collectively taking ownership of safe behaviors instead of blaming the government for imposing it on us. So, our skill set for reopening needs to include the willingness to hold others accountable and be open to them doing the same when they notice our lapse.

It is time also to remind ourselves to watch for thoughts that justify making exceptions for ourselves and others. We covered this in an earlier blog, Dangerous Thoughts.

Statisticians are Saving Us

This month is Mathematics and Statistics Appreciation Month. What a coincidence! It is statisticians after all who created the curve we are trying to flatten. They are putting in long hours, sleeping in their offices next to their supercomputers. Their data will guide governors in decisions moving forward. The statistical modeling they produce is about all we have to go by in making these decisions with their enormous consequences.

While many people now are trying to follow the data, it takes great knowledge, experience, and self-discipline to accurately interpret that data. Statisticians need to be objective. It is not fair to call this cold, rather, it is honest. It is about integrity, the integrity of the data and the integrity of the interpretation. The rest of us will see in the data what we want to see or see what we fear.

Because of this, statisticians are also subject to coercion from the politicians and people they work for who want a certain outcome. So, their work also takes courage, as they may be the bearers of bad news that conflicts with people’s agendas.

One knock on statistical modeling is that it does not produce certainty. It only produces probability. This knock was recently used to justify not lowering the emission standards for smoot. This response is either a dishonest excuse or it is based on ignorance.

Statisticians and mathematicians got people to the moon and back through probability, not certainty. Major decisions on Wall Street and in corporate America are based on probabilities. Computer simulation speeds up development of new drugs even though it produces probability, not certainty. And on and on. If we aren’t comfortable with probability, we are severely impaired and should not be making major decisions.

So, let us add mathematicians and statisticians to our list of COVID-19 heroes. They are saving lives. Their work is taxing on them and their families. But like front line workers, they love what they do, and they love being of service. They also love being acknowledged and appreciated, just like the rest of us.

With the central role they are playing in the war on COVID-19, maybe now we can allow statisticians to shape other vital decisions that impact the environment, instead of wasting their good work by allowing greed and indifference to prevail as they have.

The Accomplices of COVID-19

Alvanei Xirixana, a 15-year-old Yanomami boy, has died of COVID-19. His indigenous tribe in the Brazilian Amazon is legally protected from outside contact in order to preserve their health and their way of life. A land reserve was established to do so. But it turns out, that land contains riches, which is the scourge of all indigenous tribes.

While incursion into that area is illegal, gold mining and logging operations make daily forays into the reserve, bringing disease and polluting the rivers with toxic elements. This is how Alvanei contracted the virus. While the government of Brazil has known for some time of these illegal activities and the threat they pose, they have not stopped it. Now, the very survival of this tribe may be at stake.

Greed and indifference are the accomplices of COVID-19. They aided and abetted its spread and have stood in the way of successful control of the virus. Greed and indifference will remain long after this pandemic, fueling future disasters unless we address them as central threats to human life.

Since the 16th century, indigenous peoples of the Americas have suffered massive losses from diseases brough by European invasion. Again, greed and indifference. Smallpox was even used as a weapon to wipe out tribes in Western North America to make westward expansion easier. In 1763, British Field Marshall Lord Jeffrey Amherst concocted the idea of lacing blankets with the smallpox virus and giving them to the Indians as a gift. The plan was carried out with some success. Lord Amherst was honored by having a town in Massachusetts and an elite college named for him.

Another item: the link between poor air quality and severity of coronavirus symptoms has been established. Despite that, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency has decided to not reduce standards for soot pollution, which damages lungs and compromises a person’s ability to fend off the virus. Greed and indifference leading to death.

With COVID-19, self-interest and indifference allowed authorities to deny, minimize and delay acting. Indifference leads to not wearing face masks and practicing social distancing. Due to greed, essential medical supplies go to the highest bidder, certainly immoral when lives are at stake. Now supplies purchased by governors are being intercepted and pirated by agents of the U.S. government. Indifference and self-interest allow that to continue. The major pressure to “re-open the economy” is from people who don’t believe the government has any right to restrict their behavior. When restrictions are lifted on our activities, greed, self-interest, and indifference are what threaten a second wave of infection.

So, this isn’t just a war against a virus. The real war isn’t fully over until we neutralize its allies – greed, self-interest and indifference, or they will do other forms of harm. They are the major players in climate change, poverty, racism and so on.

We are winning the war on the virus with extraordinary compassion, courage and determination, in addition to knowledge and skill. These will all be needed to take on greed, self-interest and indifference to the suffering of others.

But who will lead the campaign against greed and indifference with the same determination and skill as we are doing with COVID-19? They may be what it takes to stop such mass destruction. Religious leaders might call for it, but organizing an effective campaign is something else.

What Day is It?

People are joking that they don’t know what day it is anymore. For many of us, the name for the day of the week no longer carries meaning anyway. With having to clear our calendars, one day became the same as the next. This may have been refreshing at first, but no longer. For many essential workers, it is the same, but for different reasons. They don’t know when their next day off will be. There is no hump day for them. Every day is like Tuesday. You worked yesterday and a free day feels a long way off.

For some of people, undefined time is emotionally distressing, even the breeding ground for depression. With little or no definition in time, they just feel lost.

Suppose you were out at sea, not knowing where you were, but you had a machine that gave your location. It gave you numbers for your longitude and latitude. Now you would know where you are, right? Not really. Not if you didn’t know where your destination is relative to those numbers. Without a reference point, all you have are meaningless numbers. This is how some people are feeling about days of the week and calendar dates.

Some people who are used to being busy actually feel ill when they are idle, dubbed Leisure Sickness and Sunday Neurosis. Pastor Rob Bell has written that when he started taking a meaningful Sabbath day free from work and responsibilities, he felt depressed in the early afternoon of what was supposed to be a gift day.

While some people get through this distress to become comfortable, others do not. They are better advised to create structure in time, even if they only have little things to work with. While many people are doing this, others need a nudge. The first thing has been creating online ways of doing what you did before, like Zoom support groups, book clubs, breakfast clubs, music lessons, tutoring sessions, worship and business meetings. Some find it helpful to check off days on the calendar while other find it distressing. It is worth finding out.

There is more, though, to having the name of the day be meaningful, and that is keeping personal structure. So instead of noticing you had a hair cut appointment you now can’t keep, you cut your own hair and schedule the next appointment with yourself. Schedule when you take walks, get groceries, and so on. Decide when to work on puzzles, when to eat what. Couples are keeping date night in new ways rather than letting it go.

While this all seems simple enough for many of us, for some, it takes deliberate effort and reinforcement. They are more likely to just do things when they feel like it rather than keep a structure. While that sounds like freedom, it can unwittingly fade into darkness.

Let us also not forget those of us for whom the calendar now only consists of stressful dates. The day bills are due are anticipated with dread. When unemployment checks come with their additional value, the end date will be burned into the back of the mind. The day of the week you get your weekly food allowance from the food bank has meaning. You don’t miss it. In such circumstances, the above methods for structuring time with positive things matter even more.

While some physicists say time may not even be real, for us humans, it does matter in how we relate to it.

They Care for Our Dead

Have you seen the footage of people caring for the COVID dead? We have been good about naming the heroes in this pandemic and recognizing the enormous sacrifice and horrible trauma they are experiencing. What I don’t see mentioned, though, on the list of those to thank are those who care for the dead bodies. These people don’t save lives, so they are not heroes, I suppose. But their service is essential and it is numbingly traumatic.

In many locations in the world, they deal with hundreds of dead bodies a day. It is very akin to war where the casualties are heavy.  Like the military personnel who have loaded and unloaded cargo planes full of body bags and coffins. In many cases, the dead are being buried in mass graves for safety reasons or are being incinerated.

They might wonder who the people are whose bodies they have responsibility for. Some of these dead are heroes who gave their lives fighting the pandemic. Some are victims of chance exposure or exposure they could not avoid. Some are victims of their own reckless behavior or the reckless behavior of others that exposed them to the deadly virus. The virus got them all.

Unlike medical personnel and first responders, those who care for the bodies of our neighbors, friends and family had no opportunity to get to know the people whose bodies they tend to. No bonding. No sense of the context of their lives. They don’t know who is in the body bag, who is in the coffin. All of the body bags, boxes and coffins are the same. And yet, these dead are not mere statistics. Bodies are heavy, Statistics are not.

It seems that being a grave digger has always been a lowly job. Upstanding people did not associate with them. Yet, these were and are the people who bury those with no money, no known relatives or associates. Without knowing their names or where they came from, grave diggers give them a home, just as they do for those with large monuments.

Let’s name those who deal with the dead bodies among the people we lift up for our thanks and for our blessing. They are servants of our communities.