Army ants will sometimes walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the pheromone trails of workers in front of them, while laying down pheromones for others to follow. If these trails accidentally loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a thick, swirling vortex of bodies that resembles a hurricane as viewed from space. They march endlessly until they’re felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what’s immediately ahead. They have no coordinating force to guide them to safety. They are imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This phenomenon is called the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many Americans trusted intuition to help guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent in the moment, and bounced from one (often false) hope to the next. They saw the actions that individual people were taking, and blamed and shamed their neighbors. They lapsed into magical thinking, and believed that the world would return to normal within months. Following these impulses was simpler than navigating a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year.
These conceptual errors were not egregious lies or conspiracy theories, but they were still dangerous. They manifested again and again, distorting the debate around whether to stay at home, wear masks, or open colleges. They prevented citizens from grasping the scope of the crisis and pushed leaders toward bad policies. And instead of overriding misleading intuitions with calm and considered communication, those leaders intensified them. The country is now trapped in an intuition nightmare: Like the spiraling ants, Americans are walled in by their own unhelpful instincts, which lead them round and round in self-destructive circles.
“The grand challenge now is, how can we adjust our thinking to match the problem before us?” says Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies disasters. Here, then, are nine errors of intuition that still hamstring the U.S. pandemic response, and a glimpse at the future if they continue unchecked. The time to break free is now. Our pandemic summer is nearly over. Now come fall, the season of preparation, and winter, the season of survival. The U.S. must reset its mindset to accomplish both. Ant death spirals break only when enough workers accidentally blunder away, creating trails that lead the spiraling workers to safety. But humans don’t have to rely on luck; unlike ants, we have a capacity for introspection.
On a recent episode of his Road Work podcast, John Roderick lamented the defiant ignorance many Americans now hold as a weaponized core virtue. If we are to break free of this pandemic, countering that ignorance is essential, but pandemic is only the most essential, deadly manifestation of a deeper problem. Figuring out how to circumvent — or at least short circuit the amplification of — the defiantly ignorant who propel us further into this national death spiral is a challenge even more formidable than the pandemic itself.
While I agree that “fewer voices” might remove distortion from our discourse, I don’t agree with Roderick’s assessment of populist culture gatekeeping as emblematic of the problem. The distortion problem lies with cynical manipulators of massive media platforms — both old media & social media — who ultimately addict their audiences by peddling simplistic responses like outrage, dehumanization, and magical thinking of the kind described in this Atlantic piece to complex problems like the pandemic. We know the chief culprits, yet we choose to give them not just mental lodgement, but to amplify them by seeming them even worthy of criticism, which means we tacitly acknowledge their lies & manipulation as legitimate.
America Is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral | The Atlantic