From the recent rise in Covid-19 cases linked to reopening in states across the country to the models showing that shutting down the country even two weeks earlier would have saved almost 55,000 lives, this pandemic is shining a spotlight on our inability to act early and preventively.
It reminds me of the fable about the ant and the grasshopper. In it, the ant works prudently all summer and is prepared when winter hits, while the grasshopper lives it up during times of warmth and abundance only to suffer when things freeze up.
Why are humans like the grasshopper, frequently not seeing the need to act until it’s too late?
Part of the answer lies in how our cultural and cognitive systems work. Our brains are programmed to prioritize the present and undervalue the future. Our psychology has evolved to make us good at thinking about immediate exchanges and benefits, but we have difficulty getting behind approaches that require us to do something now so nothing bad happens in the future.
Even though contagious outbreaks have occurred in the past, and despite exhortations from public health experts that they would happen again, we lacked the systems and mindsets to proactively respond to Covid-19.
The lack of public will and demand for prevention makes it difficult for policy makers to build prevention into our public health systems and institutions. It’s easy for elected officials to win favor by putting out small fires or building infrastructure that improves people’s lives in tangible ways — things like new roads or faster broadband. But it’s hard to win elections by using valuable public resources so nothing bad happens.
But if we don’t demand prevention, we are unlikely to get public health systems that deliver it.
People are not willfully illogical in not getting behind these solutions. It’s just that our brains and culture get in the way.
Psychological mechanisms like delay discounting, the tendency to take less now than the promise of more later, and normalcy bias, a cognitive response that pushes us to think that the future will be the same as the present, make it hard for our brains to process prevention arguments. Normalcy bias in particular is a barrier to preparing for disasters.
There are also cultural factors that make prevention a hard sell. Declinism is the belief that, compared to the present, the future is destined to be a dismal place. It is connected to fatalism — the belief that nothing can be done because problems are too deep and numerous. These two features of our common culture allow us to disengage from the abstract thinking needed to act preventively. If the future is destined to be dark, why bother being proactive?
Our culture’s strong sense of individualism also works against our ability to think preventively. We can see how making better individual choices and exercising willpower might prevent a problem, but struggle to see how changing systems can keep bad things from happening. The Covid-19 coverage, with its focus on individual behavior and heroic actors, has strengthened our sense of individualism and pushed systems-level prevention further out of mind.
But the good news for public health is that there are ways to short circuit these psychological processes and shift culture to broaden support for prevention. For example, messages that connect actions now with outcomes later, as the field of early childhood has done successfully, bolster support for preventive actions. Values that activate legacy thinking — the desire to leave something positive behind for future generations — are also effective in getting people to see the importance of doing something now for future benefits. And making sure that messages balance a focus on the urgency of the problem with the presence and power of solutions also make people more supportive of prevention.
One of the most powerful ways of building support for prevention is having an example of its importance that people personally connect with. This is exactly what we’re in the midst of now.
The pandemic is affecting our lives in ways that allow us to feel why it is so important to have robust preventive systems in place. This could create the kind of demand for prevention that policy makers can’t ignore. Hopefully it will result in a more prevention-oriented and equitable public health system. It could also increase our demand for prevention on other issues, leading to better mental health services, more proactive child protection systems, more affordable housing, and even more demand for action on climate change.
A cognitive perspective puts a different spin on the ant and the grasshopper fable. Maybe the grasshopper isn’t lazy or hedonistic. Maybe it has a cognitive system like ours: one engineered for the here and now. The Covid-19 pandemic might be a big enough wrench to bring our cognitive systems to a grinding halt, allowing us to see and prepare for the next winter.
Nat Kendall-Taylor is a psychological anthropologist and CEO of the FrameWorks Institute who studies culture and decision-making.