The Lesson in the Pandemic: Choice or Obligation?

Fill in the blank as many ways as you can: “I owe it to my community to_________________.”

While some of us will have many ways to complete the sentence, others will balk at the suggestion they have any such obligation.

NY Times columnist David Brooks is rightly impressed with the good pandemic judgement of the vast majoring of Americans, regardless of political leaning. The exceptions are dangerous when it comes to COVID-19.

When asked by a reporter whether it wouldn’t be good modeling for the President Trump to wear a mask it public, the White House press secretary replied by saying it was his choice. Too bad the reporter didn’t respond by asking whether it is his choice to urinate in a public pool. Her reply about individual choice is meant to put a stop to the discussion. Too often, it does. It is important, though, that this not be the last word, as it would return us to the Wild West – people spewing viral bullets wherever they choose.

Surveys suggest that a huge percentage of Americans suspect that the pandemic happened for a reason, to teach the human race some kind of lesson. It is certainly an opportunity for just that. But we can’t just think of it as a lesson for other people. It looks like one of those lessons is to give more weight to the well-being of others in our decisions. This is all about moral judgment and self-control. The other lesson is how to effectively deal with those who are willfully reckless toward their neighbors. Doing nothing does not move us forward as a species.

People talk about a new normal that will follow the pandemic. Hopefully, that will include more neighborly norms for our behavior that take others’ well-being into account, not just personal choice. We each have a role to play in that, in our own choices, and in how we respond to the choices others make.

Could NASCAR Help Save Us From the Pandemic?

Perhaps I’m wrong. I doubt that NASCAR fans are very PC.  What does PC have to do with it, you wonder? While it shouldn’t have anything to do with it, it has been made to.

NASCAR will be starting their season of live racing May 17. They will be trying to enforce strict COVID-19 safety protocols for the racing teams. Will this be too PC for some people?

President Trump complained that it was too PC when the Air Force Academy sat their graduates 10 feet apart at their graduation instead of the 6 minimum. He pushes us to open things up before they are ready to meet safety standards.

While President Trump has been unwilling to model safe practices or allow his staff to, if NASCAR does, as they say they will, it could take some steam out of the movement of disdain some people have for safe practices. Will they turn their wrath on NASCAR, that NASCAR officials have fallen for the liberal media lie that there is a pandemic? NASCAR is a pretty macho sport, so I doubt that would get any traction. NASCAR, though, has a pretty high degree of professionalism. They have relied on engineers to make the sport safe when it used to be deadly dangerous. Now they are relying on other science-based experts to create safe pandemic health practices. If NASCAR follows safe practice protocols as they say they will, and we all are able to see it, this will be helpful modeling. Just what we need.

Other sports will be watching. The self-discipline it will take in sports like baseball will be greater than in NASCAR. Get this – baseball will become easier to watch. Yes. Baseball players, coaches and managers have well-established habits to reduce tension that involve spitting.  I will not list them. No more. Can’t spit anymore. What a relief! They will need to learn new methods for reducing tension. Hopefully, the new ones will be easier for the rest of us to watch.

Getting Zoomed Out?

Have you stopped being excited about another Zoom invitation?

It is a bit paradoxical. We are hungry for social contact and the resumption of our group activities, by doing so by ZOOM is tiring. Along with the other kinds of fatigue we are experiencing as a population, we have now added Zoom fatigue.

Zooming has become wildly popular as a way to connect with groups of people socially and as a way to conduct business. Private music lessons, medical appointments – all kind of things are now being done by Zoom.

Along with all of its benefits, Zooming, it turns out, is very taxing for the brain. The brain is highly efficient in its use of energy because the energy supply it draws from is very small. When, as a community, we demand more electricity than the power plant is putting out, parts of the grid shut down. So it is with the brain when we overtax it, which Zoom can do.

What we are used to in small group gatherings is seeing each other’s faces in the same setting. On Zoom, everyone is in a different setting, sometimes wildly different backgrounds. This is the problem for the brain. We are all in different places, so we see different backgrounds along with the faces. When the focus switches back and forth so quickly among so many places, the brain goes, “Where am I?”

Then, quickly we are in somebody else’s home or in their Hawaiian vacation, or in an imaginary background, with the body in front of it moving like a ghost. And then we find our mind’s looking into people’s rooms, intrigued to see what books they have, or knickknacks or artwork. While we might find the intriguing, it does add to the brain fatigue. Nor is it the point of connecting by ZOOM. It is easier for the brain if we all choose plain backgrounds, like a blank wall.

In large group events, like classes and conferences, we don’t have to see everyone’s faces all at once. We are in rows facing the speaker or panel. The back of people’s heads is not distracting like it is seeing closeups of people’s faces. The brain then tries to interpret facial expressions, which is often a waste of energy.

For social events, since we can’t yet meet in person, it is comforting to spend some time in gallery view to see everyone’s faces. Then, in the discussion, it may be good to give preference to switching out of that to reduce stress on the brain, depending upon the length of the session. For large group gatherings with people we are not close to, the gallery view may not be worth the mental energy.

The brain is also taxed by having to deal with audio breakups. It tries to fill in the gaps to figure out what was just said. Such overloading of bandwidth can be reduced by having your device connected to your router with an ethernet cable. Or, if you can’t do that, have your device as close as possible to the Wi-Fi router.

And/or, I suppose, space the ZOOM sessions out so they do feel welcome. They really are helping with the stay-at-home part of this collective Rx we are part of. Even with the opening up process starting, it may take a vaccine before we no longer have to rely of ZOOM.

Staying United

Checklist before we go out:

  1. Am I prepared to be safe and keep others safe, assuming any one of us could be infected without knowing it?
  2. Am I ready to engage in team building with others, to be kind and encouraging, with the generous assumption that they also have positive intentions, even when it sure doesn’t look like it? This assumption is a gift we give each other that goes a long way.

Unlike many people around the world, we may live in neighborhoods where we aren’t used being unsafe when we leave our home and do simple things like going to the grocery store. Now, with the pandemic, we need to get used to being unsafe. With the opening up process, we will be less safe than during the stay at home phase, especially with and research showing all essential workers are not following safe practices and others being openly defiant. So, we need to get better at this.

We, citizens all over the world, have been drafted into a global war against COVID-19. This isn’t really voluntary; it is a moral obligation. In this war there are two divisions with different roles, actually quite similar to how the body defends itself against the invasion of a virus.

The first unit in the body to deal with a virus is the innate immune system, whose job is to provide a barrier to prevent the spread of the virus within the body. On the level of society, this is the role we have been conscripted by our governments to play, to form a Citizen’s Division, so to speak. When these barriers are breached by the virus, the adaptive immune system gets triggered.

The job of the adaptive immune system is to actually kill the virus and eliminate it. This is the role our scientists, science-based corporations and medical teams are playing for our society. Scientists and corporations are famously competitive with each other. But now, they have suddenly started cooperating like never before. Corporations are releasing patented information, previously kept secret. Scientists are sharing their findings as they come in, with no concern for who gets credit. The whole scientific and medical community world-wide will be deserving of a Nobel Prize, not just individuals.

And we, in the Citizen Division, are doing pretty well with our job of containing the spread of the virus. But some cracks are showing. Unlike the scientists and medical professionals, we weren’t trained for this. Remember how hard it was at first to keep track of what we touch so we don’t infect ourselves or others? Or even to remember to wash our hands thoroughly?

What we have to do now involves more emotional and mental self-control than some of us have developed. It is like this. Your car may have a lot of little things wrong with it, but if you never drive over 45 mph, you don’t even notice them. They don’t matter. But when you try going 110 mph, the car might shake, be hard to steer, and the brakes might fail. So it is with our mental and emotional self-control. Under the demands of the pandemic, our weakness are showing. We may need some fine tuning to do our jobs without turning on each other or just throwing in the towel and going AWOL. That would be deadly.

The scientists and medical systems are cooperating like never before. Scientists are usually highly competitive with each other. Now they are cooperating. So are science-based corporations, sharing patents they used to keep as trade secrets.

The Citizen Division has also been impressively unified, but now it will get harder.

To engage in team building, we may need to be better able to tolerate negativity in others and better able to control it in ourselves. Maybe they aren’t expressing their concern very diplomatically or skillfully. I had no idea how good people can be at this till I observed professional diplomates in action. It was impressive. They put people at ease in a genuine way, first, by being calm and confident themselves. They look past an angry delivery to try to find the heart of what is upsetting the other party. The intensity of a person’s response tells us how strongly they feel about what they are saying, or how close to the edge they are. Pushing back with equal intensity is simply not helpful. We can be calm and considerate without losing our own voice.

Brain studies show people are not able to hear your point of view until they feel you have understood theirs. This is a pickle when both people have the same conflicting need at the same time. So we have to be the ones to start by being empathic toward them, or it may never happen.

So, help the other person be calm by being calm yourself. If you haven’t mastered this yet, it may be better to say nothing until you can do it well. Most of these encounters are brief in situations where we can’t sit down and have a heart-to-heart. They are busy and we are too. And neither of us really wants to do this anyway.

Second, let’s try not to take offense when someone expresses upset about our behavior. If a defensive response wells up inside you, that is the time for the deep breath you are tired of hearing about. Try to see what they are seeing. They may have a point, but we can’t see it yet. Safe practices are actually a bit more complex than we think. Maybe the other person understands something about it we don’t. If you are unable to take this calm approach, maybe apologize for it, like “I’m sorry. This is really hard for me. I don’t take criticism well.” You might as well say it rather than proving it by being reactive.

We notice someone not following safe practices. We feel threatened. Now what? The goal is to effectively recruit them into safer practices in a team building way. People have worked on this. The book Giving Voice to Values, is about confronting people about their behavior. It suggests we try out ideas in advance for what to say and then practice saying them several times before we are in the situation. Their follow-up research shows it produces good results. These responses are something to brainstorm with family and friends. The goal again is teambuilding.

This is also a good time to review what we know about effective communication. Many of us have had workshops. There is a ton of good information on it on the web. This is a good time to review it. But we won’t use it if we don’t have adequate mental and emotional self-control.

Thank you for your efforts.

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.

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.