Of course, there is the social inequality that ensured that the virus would be the wildest among people with the fewest resources. The list is lengthened increasingly. But it’s worth considering how the wreckage was also made worse by a feature of our psyche – namely, how we mishandle ambiguity.
Ambiguity is very different from its cousin, risk. Suppose you have to choose between two doors; choose the right one and you win the lottery; choose the wrong one and you are beaten mindless by thugs who throw you down an alley. It’s a matter of calculated risk. Instead, suppose you had to choose to let a complete stranger decide if you won the lottery or if you were beaten. It is an ambiguity.
The difference between risk and ambiguity can be studied scientifically. In the risk scenario, you are presented with a closed box containing one hundred tokens, 50 black and 50 white.
In the risk scenario, there is a 50% chance of getting a good result. In ambiguity, the probability of a good result is on average 50%, but ranges from 1% to 99% – there is simply no way to tell. People vary widely in their willingness to take a risk, and some people thrive on it. In contrast, people consistently hate ambiguity.
People generally don’t like ambiguity more than they like risk. It’s an ancient evolutionary response – even chimpanzees and apes prefer risk to ambiguity.
When we consider risk, we activate parts of our brain related to odds calculation and executive decision-making characteristics, and if there is a good outcome in the end, things are rewarding.
On the other hand, when we struggle with ambiguity, we activate the regions of the brain at the heart of anxiety and repulsion, and if there is a good result, we generally feel less fear. While risk-taking relies on a lack of control and predictability, with ambiguity it is the same factors – but on steroids.
Which brings us to Covid-19. We are used to navigating a world of medical risk. Vaccinate a population against polio, and about one in 13.1 million times things go wrong and the vaccine causes rather than prevents disease.
We can literally search for it. And then we can reason our way to a logical answer – immunize your child. And just as clearly known, if you smoke, and your chances of dying from lung cancer are 15-30 times higher than if you don’t. Reasonable answer – don’t smoke.
This does not mean that we are good at assessing risks; we are often ugly. Rather than denying ourselves, we rationalize, concluding that something horribly risky does not apply to us, do mental contortions to decide that we are more likely to die from being attacked by a great white shark that has the Ebola virus, than to send SMS while driving.
But while critical thinking may take a hit amid the risks, our brains unravel and run wild in the empty lunar landscape of ambiguity. And that’s what our pandemic world is now. Can the airborne coronavirus infect you, even if you are socially distant enough? “Still not clear. ”
When will there be a vaccine? ” Too early to say. ”
How long do you make antibodies after surviving Covid-19? “Researchers are only in the early stages to understand this. ”
Will a second wave of illness this winter eclipse the first wave (as in the 1918 influenza pandemic)? Why does Covid-19 never kill a perfectly healthy young person?
And will historians conclude that Trump contemplating treating coronavirus patients with disinfectants is the most horrific event in presidential history, or just one of the most gruesome? Stay tuned.
When there is a really scary and invisible ‘thing’ out there, life becomes an exercise in deciding whether a glass of monumental importance is half full or half empty.
At one extreme, decide this invisible virus is nowhere, and soon you’ll be partying unmasked (and relevantly, teens are generally less averse to ambiguity than adults).
At the other extreme, decide that this invisible virus is everywhere, on all surfaces, on every breeze that crosses the top of the mountain you fled to in the hopes of feeling safe even briefly, and soon you. be part of the current tidal wave. anxiety.
The ambiguity of Covid-19 is also becoming an exercise in the sense of action that we can tap into. Take a deep, soothing breath and recognize that among the known and unknown unknowns we still know some facts about this virus and that there are things you can do to be safer. Instead, decide that you are helpless, a hostage of chance, and soon you are part of the current equally huge tsunami of depression.
A moment like this can swing us between paralysis and impetuosity; blinds us as to who matters well-being; lead us to a frantic search for attribution that leads us to the scapegoat. We need to beware of how ambiguity can bring out the worst in us.