The pandemic is still ravaging parts of the world, with the worst to come in some countries, while others like Switzerland, where we are based, is coming out of lockdown. What is striking in the news and with prominent proponents is that some are saying we are doing the equivalent of suicide and others are being calmly pragmatic. It’s hard to know what is the best advice and who is over or under reacting. This is not only the case in pandemics, which pose their own psychological traps (see this blog), but in many other areas of decision-making. What we do know, from our expertise in personality, is that emotional sensitivity plays a critical role*.
Emotional sensitivity, previously called neuroticism, is a personality trait which essentially predicts how sensitive you are to stimuli (there are many different ways of measuring and categorising this). Simply, those that are emotionally sensitive will respond quickly to stimuli but also often see the worse in situations, a small spike in daily cases and they see the worst. They are also mostly fear driven, fear after all is a strong stimulus. So, experts on the more neurotic side will be seeing worst case scenarios and will be warning against this and experts who have more emotional stability will be doing the opposite.
Now this is a paradox, because as we have already seen, and as mentioned in another previous blog, swift action is necessary, but panic is bad, and overreacting is bad – though many argue overreacting is the best cure for a pandemic. Swift rigorous action may be necessary, in fact examples around the world are showing that going early and going hard are proving to be most effective in managing the pandemic – but interestingly most of these countries who made these decisions did not make them in panic mode. So how do we resolve these paradoxes?
Jared Diamond came up with a lovely contradictory phrase: “constructive paranoia”. The reason I love this is because it highlights the paradox but uses the negativity positively or rather doesn’t see the paranoia as a bad thing per se – there is after all a reason nature developed these systems – to protect us.
So, in the current situation we are faced at making decisions with uncertainty, taking moral trade-offs, and taking some risk – as we know the biggest risk is taking no risk. Or we can be constructively paranoid – play through the worst-case scenarios, balance the risk, take cautious but optimistic steps and be responsive and decisive when we hit certain thresholds. Keeping countries locked down is not a viable option and opening them up totally is also not – I hope we’re smart enough to get back to reasonable normality with minimum damage and with enough caution and optimism to keep us all together.
For that we do not need panic or catastrophising, but constructive paranoia coupled with scientific and balanced decision making and swift decisive action when needed – but only when needed.
For some countries I fear this might not be the case – I fortunately have reasonable confidence in our government and will be cautiously optimistic, reasonably neurotic, and comfortably cautious over the next weeks and months.
*Yes, we can predict this we can also predict many conflicting personality traits such as the cognitive and intuitive personality types that no other assessments can measure. See here for more details.