This pandemic stinks. I’m not referring to COVID-19, although it obviously stinks as well, but to the Corrosive Social Contagion pandemic. This strain has been around for some time, but has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because I just named it.
Hopefully, when all of this is in our rearview mirror, we will be able to proudly say we made the best decisions we could in the face of vast uncertainty and we defeated the 2020 Corrosive Social Contagion (CSC-20) pandemic just as we defeated the other.
The good news is we CAN beat the CSC-20, but we have to start now if we want to knock it out.
The social contagion
A social contagion acts like a physical virus and occurs when we mimic the behavior of others we are exposed to. It is corrosive when the behavior it spawns is based on reactionary impulses and negative emotion. CSCs feed on unconscious cognitive biases and spread divisiveness and bad blood. For example, someone angrily expresses on social media how stupidly they think their state or federal government is handling the crisis. You may or may not agree but you probably feel the urge to chime in with your own emotion-laden comment or lash out against the poster or the common enemy. You've been triggered. Anger spawns anger. Outrage begets outrage. The more emotionally charged the idea or behavior, the more easily it spreads, especially in a time of crisis and stress. It also pushes us apart at a time when we need to be coming together. It feels good to rant but consider that each thought unleashed into the world has an effect on whomever it contacts. If the expression is doused in anger, judgment, or negativity, it elicits more of the same. Like COVID-19, CSC-20 is invisible and hard to detect, especially in ourselves. It’s as if we are wearing a face mask, but over our eyes and our minds. Thankfully though, through self-reflection and sound decision making, we can see it, stop it, and halt the spread.
How COVID-19 accelerates CSC-20
Because the COVID-19 pandemic is causing disruption at a level most of us have never experienced, we are in a state of high anxiety. So let’s dial back the fear for a moment and take a sober look at several points that I think the majority of reasonable people would agree with: 1) The COVID-19 pandemic is brand new so we have a huge amount of uncertainty about what will happen. (There are many key differences between this and the next closest thing, the 1918 pandemic or the previous SARS outbreak.) 2) The degree of disruption and/or devastation to each individual from both the virus and the mitigation efforts varies greatly based on several factors: health, financial status, occupation, family situation, and so on. 3) The high level of uncertainty (“the fog of war”) has caused predictive models and expert opinion to be widely varied as well. 4) National, state, and local governments have implemented mitigation measures that differ – significantly, in some cases. 5) Each person forms a belief about the measures taken by their leaders and determines their own level of compliance and behavior.
The decisions that determine our response and level of compliance are influenced by a complex soup of information (real and false), impulses, and beliefs. I have a different soup than you do. So does your neighbor. And the person at the store with or without a mask. And the health care worker. And the person who protests for less strict measures. And the person who protests for more strict measures. And the jerk who yells at the store clerk. And the store clerk.
Our hidden assessments
Many cognitive biases contribute to CSC-20, but the one I believe to be the biggest influence is the fundamental attribution error. In my speaking programs I sometimes perform mentalism or what I call “virtual mind reading.” I don’t claim to have supernatural abilities, but through illusion and suggestion it appears that I do (if I do my job well!). That’s why mentalism and magic are fun for audiences – they get to witness the impossible. So, no, I am not a real mind reader. Neither are you. When we observe the behavior of others and presume to know their intentions and motivations, we are claiming to actually read minds. This is especially true when someone’s behavior does not align with how we think people should think and act. Our inner voice tells us they are doing or saying that because they are a jerk. We assume they have an agenda or are purposely trying to be mean or stupid. At the very least they have a personality flaw. This is the fundamental attribution error (FAE) at work. It is the tendency when judging the behavior of others to overemphasize personal traits and overlook situational factors. Conversely, when it comes to our own questionable behavior, we emphasize the situation and context at the time as the primary cause, not our own personality. It’s a classic case of the double standard. To be clear - I am not excusing bad behavior, nor am I suggesting that you shouldn’t speak out against harmful ideas or policy. What I am advocating is taking a thoughtful approach. The Cure
To beat CSC-20, we need to build up our immunity against it by being deliberate – not reactive – in our decisions and how we express ourselves. Here are a few suggestions that work for me: 1) Think before assessing others’ actions, keeping these three things in mind: a. Don’t assume ulterior motives or ill-intent. Assume their intentions are good, or just don’t assume anything. You’re not a mind reader. b. Consider that situational factors may have played a large role in influencing their behavior. c. Remember that their soup of information, impulses, and beliefs is different than yours. This disease causes many kinds of physical, mental and emotional suffering, and we each weigh and process those effects according to our own unique soup. 2) Distance yourself from the emotional trigger. Wait before you express your negativity. Sleep on it, then re-assess your urge to spread the contagion. 3) Counter CSC-20 by spreading the antidote instead, the therapeutic social contagion (TSC). Rather than being divisive, TSC is marked by tolerance, restraint, forgiveness, patience, empathy, and respect. It too can go viral like its corrosive cousin, but it has the power to heal.
We shall overcome!
Recent studies show that societal trust is low and divisiveness is high. The stress and fear caused by the pandemic is adding gasoline to the fire. COVID-19 is a punch in the gut – a test of our resilience. I believe humanity can come out of this better than we were before if we take the time to think about how our decisions reflect our values before we let anxiety, anger, fear and frustration get the better of us. Spread the cure, not the sickness. The time is now.
Think well and be well, Steve
Good decision making requires good inputs. Check out my post on improving how we process information in a time of crisis.
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