Acceptance and The Narrative Fallacy in the Times of COVID-19

In the last week, I’m witnessing an acceleration in what I’ll call “The COVID Struggle,” or more simply, “The Struggle.” Many people are having a hard time dealing with and accepting the reality of life under a global pandemic, and are lashing out against this constrained way of living in ways big and small. They desperately want things to go back the way they were, so they pretend that everything is fine—that life as we knew it can resume with minimal further disruption.

But life is nowhere near returning to normal anytime soon. I’d say at best, we’re a quarter of the way through this thing. This is unsettling, which is why people are rejecting reality. Without strong leadership in place as a check on human impulses, the situation worsens and the whole episode drags on. The suffering elongates. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

With COVID infection and death figures spiking in many parts of the United States, we’re starting to see the impact of The Struggle. We’re worse off today than at any point in time. Based on what I’m observing where I live, in Santa Barbara, California, it’s not a surprise. I expect a spike to occur here within the next three weeks.

In the upcoming book The Startup Community Way, my co-author Brad Feld and I utilize the framework of complex adaptive systems to explain the behavior of startup communities and entrepreneurial ecosystems. Our book has been miraculously well-timed. Life under COVID-19 is a lesson in how complex adaptive systems behave. People are acutely aware of feedback loops, nonlinearities, contagion, tipping points, phase transitions, time delays, and so on. Under normal circumstances, these concepts can take time to absorb, but the COVID crisis is speeding up that progression. Even so, complexity confounds the human mind. 

One of the topics we write about, called The Narrative Fallacy, helps explain what’s going on as much of society in the United States and elsewhere is rejecting the truth of COVID-19. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist, behavioral economist, and Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman catalogs the myriad ways the human mind rejects the complexity around us in favor of a simplified version of the world. We do this by applying mental shortcuts or rules of thumb, which are primarily shaped by our own experience. But these heuristics cause us to make mistakes—predictable mistakes that are nonetheless hard to avoid. Humans are not only irrational; we are, according to psychologist Dan Ariely, “predictably irrational.”

One of the predictable mistakes we are prone to make is assigning causality to situations where such relationships don’t exist. This tendency is driven by an aversion to uncertainty, or what 18th-century philosopher David Hume described as a deep emotional need for coherence and meaning. This pattern is so pervasive that Kahneman named it “what you see is all there is” (WYSIATI). It emanates from the reactive or sensory-driven part of our brains, which is instinctual and tends to dominate our decision-making, but isn’t suited for careful thought and analysis.

We want to make sense of our world, even if we don’t have all the facts. While this satisfies the deep emotional needs that Hume and Kahneman describe, we also do it because we want to be useful. We perceive utility in applying tools and methodologies to our work—we want to help. But to know what the right approach is (the “prediction”), we must first understand the underlying relationships (the “causality”).

However, in complex systems, causality and prediction are often impossible to know—especially in advance. Since we don’t have all of the facts, we invent them and fill in the blanks with stories, which are often incorrect. By projecting our own experiences onto the world and drawing broad conclusions from them, we make predictable mistakes.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb also addresses this in his 2007 book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Black-swan events are high-impact, low-frequency occurrences that few, if any, people foresee because they are complex and generally unprecedented. When attempting to explain these events, humans create stories about cause-and-effect that mislead themselves and others. For Taleb, issues around these complex phenomena aren’t only unclear in advance; they also aren’t clearer after the fact. However, we regularly pretend they are well understood in retrospect, leading to interpretation mistakes. While black-swan events aren’t random—there are underlying factors and relationships driving them—they are simply too complex for the human mind to understand and anticipate.

Two brief points to make here. The first is projecting experiences from our lives to invent facts that fill in the blanks. At the top of the list is the refrain: “Well, I don’t know anyone who’s been sick or died of COVID, so I won’t either. Why should I care?” The reality about COVID is that there is so much we don’t know. Our ignorance is vast. The pandemic, and the virus itself, are evolving rapidly. We don’t know where we are now and we don’t know where this is going. We simplify the reality so that we can make sense of the situation. But the harsh truth is: we don’t know.

The second point is on inventing cause-effect narratives after the fact. Looking at the rise, fall, and rise of COVID infections in the United States, along with the narratives of politicians and pundits that “things are under control” is an instructive lesson here. I recall the Governors of Florida, Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere—states that were spared from the initial wave of COVID infections—boasting about things being under control, while carelessly relaxing controls without all of the facts in place. Many citizens in those states were hypnotized into thinking that COVID was a “big cities in blue states” matter at best, or at worst, a conspiracy invented by the media. That’s a narrative many are anchored to and struggle to break free from.

The sooner we, as an entire society, accept that COVID is real, that it’s dangerous, and that our understanding of the virus is still extremely limited, the faster we can move through it and restore a greater portion of normalcy to our lives. But, with The Narrative Fallacy at play, we are tricking ourselves in ways big and small—deepening and lengthening the suffering the process. Living the lie is even more painful than accepting the painful truth.

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