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Posted on: Monday, May 25, 2020 by Rajiv Popat

The Corona / Covid lock downs in most countries are being opened up and life is getting back to normal as far as most folks are concerned. The number of infections however, in a lot of countries are still creeping up. Take for instance India. India declared its lock down when there were barely a couple of hundred cases and now 100000+ case later (with over 6000+ new cases a day) India is opening its lockdowns.

IndianInfectionGraphWithNumbers

The media narrative has gone from, "the virus is very dangerous you need to stay at home" to "we have to live with the virus and you need to get back to work". The CEO of Infosys has now been asking people to not just go to office but to take a pledge to overwork themselves. And the governments which were particularly concerned about our health and well being are now equally concerned about the health and well being of their country's GDP and the economy.

All of that is fine and makes business sense. If you look at it economically, I'm not going to complaint about any of that. Most businesses and governments are always known to give more importance to macro economics over individual lives, but what I find most fascinating amongst all this is the way people are reacting to this pandemic lately.

The same people who were wearing masks and scared to death are now hanging out and chilling and even going to work with very little precautions. And as much I find this fascinating, there is already a documented psychological phenomena / fallacy that describes what is happening with people.

So how does fear and panic of death transition to a case of denial and perception of invincibility so quickly?

How did people go from being bad s#it scared to not giving a sh!t?

Turns out, Malcolm Gladwell described this phenomena years ago in his book David and Goliath using a famous fallacy called remote misses vs. near misses. I am not going to quote the entire chapter from the book, but Chris Irvin does a really awesome job at describing this concept in his blog. His conclusions though, are radically different from mine.

Long story short, during the world war just as Germany was going to bomb the UK, the British government had predicted that when the bombs begin to come down the civilians would be scared and would panic. And when the bombing started there was some fear, but within months Londoners grew resilient and stopped giving a damn about the explosions. As Irvin explains in his post:

Just a few years later the bombings began. Just as the British military predicted, thousands of people died and were injured and a million buildings were left standing in ruin. What the British military didn’t get right was the assumed panic amongst its people.

As the bombings continued, the people of London became resilient. One English psychiatrist wrote that as bomb sirens were alarmed, “Small boys continued to play all over the pavements, shoppers went on haggling, a policeman directed traffic in majestic boredom and the bicyclists defied death and the traffic laws. No one, as far as I could see, even looked into the sky.”

While Londoners were known to be a tough bunch, this wasn’t just a miraculous behavior unique to the people of London. As Gladwell puts it, “Civilians from other countries also turned out to be unexpectedly resilient in the face of bombing.”

The central idea here is that the phenomena of people growing resilient and developing almost an unhealthy courage towards the bombs which could kill them was never really courage or resilience. It was a convoluted form of belief or a mass scale societal delusion in large groups of people, that nothing was going to happen to them.

Malcom in his book, presents a hypothesis that in cases of bombing (or any tragedy) two kinds of things can happen to you. If you are alive you are either:

  1. A Near Miss - this means you are someone who were almost or partially hit by a bomb (or whatever tragedy we are talking about). The near misses see first hand the trauma and damages a tragedy can cause and most near misses are left in shock and trauma from that experience. These are people who can feel and spread panic but in a larger population this group is usually pretty small and contained.

  2. A Remote Miss - These are people who have heard about a bomb explode, or have had a bomb explode a sizable distance away and have just witnessed the report in a television show. Repeat this a few time and these folks who Malcolm calls, remote misses, start believing that the bombs or tragedies are never going to hit them. They distance themselves from the people who are getting hit and start developing a false sense in invincibility.

As MacCurdy, the researcher who did this research puts it:

Remote misses are the people who are essentially unaffected. The bombs have fallen far enough from them that the consequences are much less than the first two groups. As MacCurdy puts it, “a near miss leaves you traumatized. A remote miss makes you think you are invincible.”

This research is important because a lot of remote misses are happening to us right now and creating a false sense of invincibility in a lot of people who are taking their cars out and driving to work without any precautions. A lot of companies which are literally arm twisting their employees to show up for work when they should be working on giving them infrastructure and supporting them to work from home.

I do understand that the economy is suffering and some folks would need to go out there and start providing essential services and most need to also go out and work to make ends meet and pay the rent. I am absolutely cool if folks take a deliberate calculated risk and then step out of their homes to go to work. But stepping out with an illusion that "nothing is going to happen to me" is nothing but hope and hope alone is never a good strategy.

If your work demands you to work or even if you yourself have take an active decision to work I respect that. Totally.

Go ahead and do to work, but please do it safely and carefully! Wear the dammed masks and then wear shields, and then gloves and them some more protective equipment if you can. Wash your hands, wash everything that comes into your house starting with groceries to the stuff you order online, take showers and change your clothes when you come back from work and even distance yourself from your family as much as you can and sleep in different rooms temporarily so that if something happens to you they can be there for you and help you and take care of you. There is no glory or love in falling sick collectively as a family, just because one person in the family has to, or chooses to, go out and work.

And most importantly, never say, I am careful, nothing is going to happen to be. Instead focus on awareness and mindfulness (and prayers) so that nothing does. Observe every mistake, every oversight and every miss that happens on your part and fix it. Remember that time when you forgot to wash that milk packet? Remember that so that it doesn't happen next time. Remember that time when you took your mask off for a meeting? Please don't do that again in your next meeting.

And even more importantly, just the fact that everyone in my team is working, everyone in my workplace is working or even everyone in my company is working is never a reason for you to be driving to work. You should work if you have to or want to work. A huge number of people indulging in an act doesn't make it safer or reduce the risk in any way. With a virus the risks only go up.

With Remote Misses, the entire fallacy lies in the fact that a huge population of people are not going to be directly impacted by something dangerous and there fore are going to end up feeling invincible. That doesn't make the overall environment safe to be indulging in the act.

I know this because I actively chose to travel to a family member's wedding right before the lock downs began. But not for a second did I have a false illusion that I was invincible. My wife and I discussed this and concluded that it's a risk we are collectively willing to take in return for an experience. And we went ahead and took the risk with prayers and all necessary precautions. Not because we were emotionally arm twisted or guilted into being there, not because we wanted to impress someone or prove a point or flex our courage mussels, but because we genuinely wanted to be there and were okay with taking the risks in return of the experience of being there. The number of cases back then were really low. Would I take the risk today to get an experience of being a part of a family member's wedding? No way!

As we move ahead I can only pray that deaths are none, but the reality is that this is getting worse in a lot of countries and The Remote Miss Fallacy, which ends up causing a feeling of invincibility at a mass scale, is just going to make things worse. I know people who have even stopped following the news and stopped tracking the numbers and are just blindly going to work without any persuasions what so ever. The other day I heard the story of a lady at a friend's office bragging about how she doesn't feel the need to wear a mask.

All I can do in this post, is tell you that the Remote Miss fallacy might be f@#cking with your head and that following the heard is not always the right answer. You must definitely go to work if that's what you need to or want to do, but be very honest about why you can't work from home, why you are going and if the reason revolves around following a herd, flexing your courage mussel, impressing your organization or anything superficial, take a pause and think if it's worth the risk. Don't work under the assumption of your invincibility and don't get complete rid of that bit of healthy fear in you that's keeping you safe.

And then if you still decide to go because you have to or want to, that is absolutely fine! Just be careful and take necessary precautions. I genuinely wish you good luck from the bottom of my heart and pray that you and your entire family, loved ones, friends and acquaintances stay out of harms way.