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Four Ways to Outwit a Pandemic

Our brains are not computers. They are designed and built by nature, not Apple.

We evolved to manage life in the wild: to find food and mates, to defeat predators and enemies.

So our brains contain primordial tripwires and shortcuts to survive a cruel and dangerous world.

We are not naturally rational. We come to rational thinking slowly and reluctantly. We more easily rely on old knee-jerk and gut reactions, even when they lead us astray in navigating modern-day life.

Our animal nature prefers gambling to investing, beauty to honesty, flattery to truth, power to wisdom.

So we have blind spots and we make mistakes.

But, as Peter Kaufman teaches in his “Multidisciplinary Approach to Thinking,” if we uncover our blind spots we think more clearly and make fewer mistakes.

In a pandemic you must not make mistakes. We have seen the tragic consequences among the brazen who, for a host of reasons, ignore the medical advice to stay home.

So let’s uncover four evolution-driven blind spots and outwit the pandemic:

1) Think Slow When You Think Smart

Our evolved minds are designed to think fast for short-term gain.

We like fast thinking. The secret of comedy is timing. Comedians think faster than we do and we love them for it.

But true understanding requires slow thinking. Slow thinking is not fun but promotes real understanding.

Albert Einstein claimed that he was not more intelligent than other people, he just thought about problems longer.

Today we are besieged by news reports of the horror of widespread illness and death due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It is true. It is real. It has devastated thousands of families, overwhelmed caregivers and crippled the economy and left millions unemployed.

That is the reality.

But there is always a larger reality that is obscured by everyday reality.

Because our brains evolved to react to the immediate present in which we live.

Media plays to that bias. That’s why we like news more than history: the latest news, never yesterday’s news.

It is a blind spot. Evolutionary psychologists call it “recency bias”.

So we are focused on the pandemic.

We must remind ourselves that human history is filled with plagues and pandemics. Humanity has endured and survived each and every one of them. Even the medieval plagues which killed more than half the populace.

After every plague and pandemic humankind has been resurgent. Life has progressed, we have flourished and grown in ways unimaginable to our ancestors.

There is no reason to believe we will not perform as well or better this time.

There is a vaccine against recency bias. It is the ancient adage:

This Too Shall Pass

2) Sci-Tech Gets No Respect

We all enjoy advances in science and technology. But we take them for granted. And we curse tech whenever it fails us: “This damn phone died on me!”

(Maybe you didn’t charge it?)

We do casually wonder, “What’ll they come up with next?”

But no one much cares who “they” are.

We love James Bond and his latest tech but we sneer at “Q” who designs and builds it.

If you wish to be adored be brave, beautiful or sing and dance well. Do not cure cancer. Do not do sci-tech.

Scientists will develop vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. But our evolved minds will not rush to celebrate or venerate those scientists. Instead we will admire our overconfident leaders, just as our forebears did in antiquity and before.

Envisioning a time when a “corona-shot” is as routine as a polio vaccination does not come naturally to our minds. But it will come.

No delirious science fans will dog the scientists.

The Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, created an immortal popular song and jazz classic decrying our blind spot for innovation: “They All Laughed:”

Ford and his lizzie

Kept the laughers busy

That’s how people are

If you have never heard Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald sing it and swing it, here it is.

3) No Problem So Bad That Inversion Can’t Help

It is an AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) maxim:

“No problem is so bad alcohol can’t make it worse.”

And there is no problem so bad it can’t be helped by inversion.

Inversion is the thinking tool that brings out the good in the bad.

Credited to the Nineteenth Century German mathematician Carl Jacobi and championed by no less than Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, inversion takes a problem, turns it on its head, runs it back and forth until the solution spills out before you. Warren Buffett says, “It’s like singing country songs backward. That way you can get your house back, your auto back, your wife back and so forth.”

Best popular example is the holiday evergreen, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where heavenly clockmaker Clarence inverts George Bailey’s life. Tormented George faces the nightmare world that would exist if he were never born. Horrified, he abandons his plan to suicide, returns to his family and friends who welcome him back and save him from bankruptcy and prison.

So let’s invert the pandemic.

What might we actually find that could be a source of good in it?

Here’s my list:

1) It awakens us to the real and present danger of pandemics. We can no longer live in happy denial. The wise people who predicted this pandemic, such as Bill Gates and Laurie Garrett, can not be dismissed as Cassandras. Funding for research and development will no longer be stymied.

2) It grants nature a reset, lessens our hydrocarbon-fueled pollution and may help us seek a cleaner environment through alternative energy as the smog lifts.

3) It grants us a reset, brings us closer to our homes, families and friends, to simpler pleasures and better values. It makes us grateful for the sacrifice of frontline workers, caregivers, researchers, police and fire.

4) It grants time for study and learning, for utilizing the vast resources of the internet: literature, movies, music, art and science.

5) It is, as the slave-philosopher Epictetus taught, an opportunity to behave well, to help each other, to share and donate.

4) Think Like Darwin

Darwinian evolution is the most counter-intuitive idea in science. Even highly intelligent people may accept it as theory but won’t apply it to everyday life or the present pandemic.

It is difficult to realize that every living creature, including a virus not independently alive, seeks to propagate itself through its genes, even as it torments and destroys or devours other forms of life. Nature is red in tooth and claw, as Tennyson wrote.

Most of us did not anticipate this conflict. We have lived in the most bountiful and stable of times, with the least amount of deadly conflict, with both nature and each other, that humanity has ever known.

As Machiavelli wrote, no one looking at still waters anticipates a storm.

People shake their head and remark, “It’s like science fiction!”


Sci-fi anticipates the future! Why be surprised when it arrives?

Creative and thoughtful minds have imagined all this before.

Here are two Sci-Fi classics of Darwinian invasions of self-replicating monsters seeking to destroy the human race:

“The Thing From Another World” (1951)

“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956).

Each flic pits a brave and brilliant coalition of American doctors, nurses, scientists, military and government against the Darwinian challenge of a self-replicating monster.

I won’t print a spoiler alert.

I’ll just quote Warren Buffett at the recent Berkshire Hathaway meeting:

“Never Bet Against America!”

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