Originally published in the Globe and Mail June 24, 2020
You can sense it in the air. A feeling. A good feeling. The cold fear that gripped us in the early weeks of the pandemic is melting away. Muscles long tensed are starting to relax. Basking in heat and sunshine, it feels as if the crisis is, if not over, slowly receding into the past.
The phrase of this moment is “opening up.” The distance between strangers shrinks. Masks disappear like snow buntings migrating to the Arctic.
Where does this feeling come from? Not statistics. Data tell us the virus is still very much among us. And in some of the jurisdictions where the feeling of relief is strongest – Texas, for one – the numbers are not even down or flat. They march steadily upward.
Psychology is the principal source of this feeling. And to understand it, and why it is dangerous, we must consider our cousins, the chimpanzees.
Scientists know lots about chimpanzees because they have studied them extensively in the wild. Which is a bit puzzling. If you encounter a group of wild chimpanzees, they aren’t going to ignore you and continue about their business. They’re going to hoot and holler in alarm at the strange creature in their midst. So how are scientists able to study any chimpanzee behaviour, other than their alarm at intruders?
The key is habituation.
Show up one day, you get alarm. Show up the next day, more alarm. Another day, more alarm, but perhaps a little less. Keep at it and, slowly, the alarm diminishes. The chimpanzees relax. Keep going and they will ignore you and go about their business.
What’s at work here is some primal wiring, which is why we can see the same process in dogs, rats, squirrels – and humans.
When a chimpanzee first encounters a large, unknown animal that may be a threat – it doesn’t know if this thing is a predator, but it knows there are predators and this could be one – its brain rings the alarm bell.
Chimpanzees are also a social species, so a chimp will look to others. If they are also frightened, the alarm rings louder.
But if a chimpanzee encounters a creature and nothing bad happens, that suggests that perhaps the creature isn’t a threat. If it happens again, that is more evidence the creature isn’t a threat. As the evidence piles up, the fear dies down – until the chimpanzee completely ignores the creature it once thought was a mortal danger.
This isn’t a conscious calculation. It’s a hard-wired intuition, an automatic process.
In February and March, we were the chimpanzees with a strange new creature in our midst. We knew so little about COVID-19, and the measures we were instructed to take plunged us into a world of radical uncertainty. We were terrified. And when we looked around, we saw others were, too. Which made us even more frightened.
At first, when you put on a mask and went for a walk, or when you stood two metres apart and lined up for the grocery store, or when you carefully rubbed disinfectant over every bag and purchase before putting it on your kitchen counter, it felt alarmingly alien.
But you did it a second time. And a third time. And again and again.
Each time you did not see people drop dead in the street. You returned home safely. You did not get sick afterward. Nothing bad ever happened to you.
Slowly, the bizarre became routine. The feeling of menace ebbed. When you looked around, you saw that others were finally relaxing, and you relaxed some more.
You are the chimp getting used to the presence of the quiet scientist. If this keeps up, you soon may not give a moment’s thought to the thing that terrified you such a short time ago.
And that’s a problem – because the virus isn’t a scientist. It is a real threat. But the slow process of habituation that leads chimpanzees to correctly conclude it is safe to ignore scientists is leading us to incorrectly conclude we can stop worrying about the virus.
For those politicians and corporate interests who would like us to believe happy days are here again, that’s just fine. For everyone else, it’s a bad mistake.
Your subjective perception of this risk is a terrible measure of the actual risk. Doubt it. Demand evidence. Don’t let your guard down.
And governments must do more to help. Even though complacency was a predictable danger, official messages have become vague and confused. That has to change.
The crisis isn’t over.