Coronavirus and Human Psychology
Yes I know, you’re sick of hearing about coronavirus, and quite frankly, so am I, but, I must admit, I’ve never seen anything quite like this before. The global scale of the measures to halt the spread are unprecedented.
The Entire World’s doing the same thing; restricting travel, self-isolating, closing schools, shops and workplaces, keeping only the basic food and supply shops open.
Granted, it’s not that all the world’s countries have come together and agreed this is what should be done. Rather, they’re the most logical things to do given the situation. Even ISIS have declared their terrorists should stay away from Europe for fear of the virus (now if that’s not the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard… but at least coronavirus is good for something).
Increased Global Connectedness
In this ever-more connected world we live in, the ability to instantly communicate with a stranger on the other side of the globe has become so commonplace, it’s faded into the realm of ‘it was always like that wasn’t it?’ Everyone now has the ability to voice their opinions through an almost endless array of mediums (ha, medium, get it?); social networks, consumer reviews, forums, comments.
But, humanity being the imperfect beast that it is, uses it just as much for negativity as it does positivity. Humans can easily connect to learn, teach, share and grow, just as much as they can to bully, ridicule, degrade and spread misinformation.
As our ability to exercise our individual free-speech rights have become increasingly unfettered, we’ve been more able to express exactly what we think about anything at all by typing words on a screen. At the same time, the individual has generally become less, rather than more, accepting of other people’s opinions.
The individual possesses the right to express whatever they think about anything, with little repurcussion, but somehow is far less tolerant when others do exactly the same thing and express their views.
To be honest it’s surprising but not surprising, as Plato highlighted the phenomenon in The Republic through the means of Socrates (although I forget where exactly it is in the 10 books). Socrates wasn’t a fan of democracy and argued, among many other things, that with higher levels of societal tolerance toward individual expression, the individual themselves would simultaneously become less tolerant to others expressing opinions which diverge from their own.
Love & Hate
As a species we have both the capacity to love and to hate. Our closest (still existing) evolutionary cousins are bonobos and chimpanzees. To the north of the congo river, about a millions years ago, some chimpanzees ventured across to the south where their evolutionary paths diverged from that of their northern kin.
Those southern chimpanzees evolved into what we now call bonobos, and there are stark differences between the two species which stem almost exclusively from the levels of food available in their environments.
North of the Congo river food has the element of scarcity to it. Food is available, but not in abundance. South of the river, food is plentiful. This simple difference was enough to change the behaviour, psychological make-up and evolution of those who ventured south.
In the north, because food is scarce, chimpanzee troupes have to compete with each other when resources are low. They patrol their respective territories and violently eject or kill any neighbouring chimps found on the wrong side of the boundary line, even if those overstepping the mark are mothers with their children.
Chimps have developed the capacity for conflict and violence because of the scarcity of resources. This drives the base survival instinct (located in the amygdala, otherwise known as the ‘reptile brain’ or ‘monkey mind’) through the means of competition for resources.
Chimpanzee societies are run by a single alpha male with a harem of females. The alpha will be periodically challenged by young up-starts looking to usurp his position. When he is usurped, the new alpha often kills the youngest chimps and replaces them with his own offspring to continue his genetic line.
South of the river, Bonobo’s live where food is plentiful. They live in matriarchal societies which are typically run by a group of female members (note here, not just one). Because they don’t have to compete for resources bonobo’s developed far more of a capacity for peaceful co-existence and much less of one for aggression.
Their societies have the highest levels of co-operation, the highest frequencies of affection and sexual contact and among the lowest incidence of violence and aggression, especially when compared to other primates. When a tense situation does arise, for example, it’s calmed using sexual/affectionate touch, like mutual genital rubbing.
So we humans, sharing a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos, have the capacity for both extremes of behaviour; violent disagreement driven by primal, competitive urges for resources and the capacity to love and peacefully co-exist.
(Although we’re not quite at the level yet where disagreements can be calmed with some mutual tossing off)
Our capacity to compete for resources might explain why the toilet paper shelves are empty and people are fighting in the aisles over the last 12 pack of quilted ply. But this is utterly ridiculous within itself. There’s no logical reason to hoard toilet paper. There are no signs of toilet paper shortage and COVID-19 does not make you uncontrollably sh*t yourself.
This rush for toilet paper is because humans have seen other humans doing it and they don’t want to miss out. It is the absolute power of Social Proof. As creatures we are inherently social — we need each other to survive and we look to each other to figure out what the right thing to do is. If one humans sees another hoarding a particular resource our primal minds tell us that resource must be becoming scarce. Our competitive suvival circuits spark and drive us to grab as much of said resource as we can.
Much like the chimp troupes fighting each other in the winter when food becomes less plentiful, we fight each other for resources when we feel humans from other tribes begin greedily snapping them up for themselves.
This is where we can go back to the point of our unprecedentedly high level of global connectedness. When our ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer tribes, one tribe may see another hoarding mangoes like it was going out of style (perhaps one of them just had a hankering for that sweet, yellow fruit one morning) and would start doing the same thing themselves. They’d think the other tribe must know something they didn’t and if they didn’t also immediately begin doing the same thing they’d never see a mango again.
The tribe in the next valley away from the mango wars would be none the wiser, they’ve felt no scarcity and have no sudden desire to shake the local tree. But in todays age, where we can instantly see on our black mirrors what’s going on on the other side of the world, our competitive circuits can spark when we feel our survival resources are being consumed, even though it makes absolutely no sense to do so and the perceived scarcity is nowhere near where we are.
The coronavirus has been sensationalised by the hyper-connectedness of our current world. It’s allowed both sides of our collective instincts to surface. We’ve been globally sharing ways to avoid it, deal with it, stop the propagation of it, but we’ve also been sharing misinformation, blame and scaremongering.
What tends to divide us is competition, especially when it’s for resources, but even if it’s only for the glory of our own group. It’s the essence of competitive sports, politics, even war.
In 1954 psychologist Muzafer Sherif ran an experiment called Robbers Cave. He took a bunch of 12 year old boys who thought they were going to summer camp, split them into 2 groups and pit them against in each other in various challenges. Each group came up with a name (the Rattlers and the Eagles) and each developed a group identity pretty quickly.
As the challenges went on, the boys became increasingly competitive, nasty and violent toward each other. They would get into fights, burns each others flags, ransack each others camps. They each identified strongly with their own group and made a clear distinction between themselves and members of the other group.
This is the essence of ingrouping and outgrouping. It speaks to our chimpanzee evolution, the capacity we have for conflict and to get the better of another group. At the end of the experiment Sherif had the boys complete some tasks which required them all to co-operate and many of their animosities and hatreds toward each other softened very, very quickly.
What tends to unite us is the sharing of a common goal. We must co-operate when we have to work together toward a mutually beneficial outcome. Then we see that we’re much more alike than we are different.
This is what coronavirus is doing. It has the potential to affect anyone, so no one is safe. We must work together in some way to stop its spread and minimise its danger. It’s having the side-effect of making humanity co-operate, at least in some sense, even if it does mean individually self-isolating (at least we’re all doing the same thing).
Love through Hate
Humans are a funny creature. Common goals unite us but what unites us even more is a common goal with a shared hatred.
It was the essence of the Robbers Cave experiment, why each group became so competitive and nasty toward the other. It’s why football supporters become so emblazoned with passion when their team win and the other team (they hate) lose.
It goes back to ingrouping, outgrouping and competing for resources, even if the perceived ‘resource’ is social glory and victory. We get a dopamine hit when we win something, when we get the better over another group or someone else — our monkey minds see it as a positive step toward survival, even when practically, it may be nothing of the sort.
This unity through a common goal and common hatred can be used though. It’s whats shown in Independence Day, War of the Worlds and all the other alien invasion movies. Hostile aliens arrive to destroy humanity and humans forget their petty differences in order to face their common enemy together.
Humans have the odd capacity to love each other through shared hate. It’s learning the essence of something through the means of anithesis, like Sun Tzu’s Art of War teaches peace through the means of war.
Nothing unites like a shared sense of purpose and confusingly, a shared sense of hatred.
Coronavirus & Unity
This is the effect coronavirus is having. Obviously it doesn’t have a personality or a malicious intent so it’s difficult to unite in a shared hatred against it, but we can unite in a common goal, and it’s already having that effect.
Countries are having to learn from each other and work together in some ways to minimise risk, stop spread and get through a challenge shared by the whole of humanity.
There’s been a lot of division in the past few years; ‘build that wall’, Brexit, a lot of ‘us vs them’. Hopefully we can use the coronavirus to build a bit more co-operation as we try and move forward to tackle even bigger issues we’ll face as a species.
We’ll need the practice at global co-operation when we come to properly face the climate crisis.