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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?

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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.

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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.

  • I suggest that Abby Johnson at Fidelity targets these cognitive biases by hiring female financial planners and executives. I know she has financial anthropologists on her staff, and they are looking at gender differences in preventative thinking as a way to nudge families into more forward looking preparation.

  • I would like to submit to the author that IMO, the simple and tragic reason for late and inadequate response in ingrained in the misguided sense of Americans who value personal liberty and freedom as much more important than public health and safety. One only need to look at the current surge of numbers surrounding the overwhelming preference to celebrate July 4 disregarding requirements for shelter at home, social distancing, and PPP use. The prevailing attitude of “not me for personal sacrifice” is unfortunately a cultural imperative and inescapable reality but tragic!

  • It is true that appropriate steps were not taken in the correct time. However the basic reason according to my opinion is the pride which prevented to study the success stories of other countries. before US was exposed to the peak of the problems Korea and China had faced the situation. Identification of the infected persons in the earliest occasion, separating all infected persons and separating them from the community( with or without symptoms) and activating contact tracing to identify all probable infected persons should have solved the problem. mental block to follow others and obtaining advice from clinicians who though people with mild or no symptoms can be kept at homes( in the community ) is the primary cause of current situation. rather than addressing the probable transmitters trying to guard receivers is a costly affair which is likely to be unsuccessful. i think becoming humble and ready to learn from others is the solution.

  • If this article is correct, it would suggest that American brains are different than those in Germany, S. Korea, Singapore, and other countries that have managed to successfully slow the COVID-19 virus and contain it with testing, tracking & tracing methods.

    Apparently America needs a check-up from the neck up.

    • The Asian countries, the advanced ones, have people who are better educated, significantly, and they also have long traditions of wearing face masks, and are more amenable to obeying orders from authorities. They are also smaller in size, much smaller in size. This last part I am not sure of, but I suspect they do not think of another part of their country as greatly different from their own region, as people in the US often do.
      I think all of these factors are significant, but we must remember, they have more scares from the seasonal flu, and more scares from the new flu variety, than we do in the US, and were also scared badly by the SARS epidemic. Their public health officials have seen some bad stuff in living memory – the US really has only the AIDS epidemic, and despite all the fear that was promoted regarding that, and how bad it was for the people effected, it never was a threat to 97% of the population and spreads very differently.

      We could have done better, but the failures are getting greatly exxagerated.

  • And yet we lay out billions or trillions on defense spending to keep something bad from happening, even if that something is undefined or illusory. Perhaps a sufficient fear campaign combined with lobbying in corporate self interest appears to overcome our innate short-sightedness.

  • Are you kidding? You publish an article about why the US response has been so terrible and you don’t even mention the current occupant of the white house? Nor his systemic defunding and essential destruction of our pandemic early warning network and systems for dealing with the ENTIRELY FORESEEABLE event? In case you don’t know, and I know you do, the prior occupant of the white house was very meticulous in his preparation of the country for the next pandemic. He and his administration took MANY steps to protect the American People: ALL of those steps were undone, defunded, ignored, or otherwise set aside. What kind of journalism is this?

    • Joe Mellis – I have heard this claim Trump destroyed a warning system set up before him -but I do not find details of this in the media and am not sure it is true – can you provide some links or a history of this?
      I personally think it is clear government officials in China did more than anyone to cause the pandemic. It is hard to sort out truth from lies in all this, but the claim of a local doctor being persecuted and forced to shut up when he was trying to warn people seems at the least very plausible – and I note, the man died at the age of 32 – very suspicious, in fact, many Chinese people seem to have disappeared who could tell the early history of the epidemic.
      Even if some of the accusations are not true, we know beyond doubt that China lied to claim that there was no evidence of human to human transmission of the virus. We know this, not because we have the internal communications between Party members, but because the way the disease behaves makes it impossible they did not know. ANY competent doctor would have known very early on this was a virus spreading between people, as most of the victims had to know.
      I am not against blaming Trump, Xi Jin Ping is not our President, Trump is, but it is kind of pathological to blame only him when we have, at least, extreme negligence on the part of Xi, and probably murder and other crimes as part of a cover up.

  • I am sure the author is right about most of it, but I doubt anything can be done about it. Under a system where we did not depend on central control, in other words, highly contrarian views were at least partly empowered, we could in theory have alternatives.
    For example, if the misinformation about face masks not being important, which was promulgated by the CDC and WHO early on, had been challenged by the news media, we would not have squandered the shutdown as badly as we did.
    Ditto for the ridiculous injunction to stay one meter away, which the CDC recognized as wrong, but then went with a still inadequate 6 feet.

    Although the resistance of Americans to GOOD advice has been rightly bemoaned, as we have resistance to face masks now, after we know so well they work well, we should not forget all the BAD advice given out early on.

    I would also point out – the weaknesses of our culture – a poor education for the masses of people – POOR – let’s not lie to ourselves, and American high school graduate is way behind about 40 countries in how much she has learned. That was a big factor, and it still is, and will continue to be.

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