We are living in normal times. Not many would agree with this statement. Mainly, because when we frame our understanding of events, we frame them as if that particular event has somehow consumed reality as we know.
This is why many say that when they break up from their first girlfriend or boyfriend, it felt like the world ended – for most, this is true, right? But, the operative descriptor here is that that it ‘felt like’.
In behavioral science, there is a phenomenon we refer to as the attentional bias — it is when we hyperfocus on an event, words spoken to us, an experience we might encounter and then allow that particular thing to frame how we perceive reality.
Pandemics tend to intrinsically leave us questioning our potential as a species. It forces us to ask much deeper questions in how we engage with one another, technology and our future. If we let it, it will guide our potential altogether.
After the Black Plague — the demise of serfdom in Western Europe, depopulation of villages, and increased social mobility were some of the ways it helped to reshape society and its narrative.
One could argue that good things came out of such an event based on the above examples — however, religious extremism also came with the overall package of this newly evolving context.
In art and literature, pessimism guided the creative output, from Boccacio to Petrarch – darkness fell over how people began to express themselves.
How does this play out in our current world where a tangible uncertainty like the coronavirus calls for our attention? Essentially, it is that we could take all of our energy and focus in on the COVID19 pandemic and begin to think that because of how we are now living in temporary isolation (for the betterment of vulnerable populations) that this current reality should frame everything we do from now on. In fact, that is what is already happening.
We have now come to a place, where it is mandated that we have to wear face masks — albeit, this is the rational choice to prevent the spread of coronavirus – it also stands as a symbol of separation. That we must now use the context of this pernicious epidemic as a way to justify more and more distancing.
Just this past week, Google has shown that the question, “When will we get back to normal” has gone up 400%. People want to be able to control the uncertainty of the current social climate where upheaval has become the new normal.
However, the reality is, that this current crisis will fundamentally change the way we see each other and interact. This might not be a good thing. If society post-COVID19 does develop an unhealthy fear of touch, we could see a decrease in empathy, a decrease in social gatherings -which has been shown to increase the neurotransmitter, oxytocin (the love/connection drug). Our bodies are made for connection. Mothers are rewarded with this flooding of the neurotransmitter at the birth of their child. Its the feeling of “butterflies’ we get when we fall in love. Our body enjoys relationship.
The coronavirus could change this. But, it doesn’t have to. In the behavioral economics world, there is this assumption that as humans we struggle with making the best rational decisions – this arises out of data and analytics that are also limited by the groups they investigate. Generalities only function as a way to understand how human behavior works in specific contexts. This is the shortsightedness of our current predicament — we are understanding how humans operate in a pandemic. But, even with this inherent shortsightedness, there are things about our culture that we will be able to assess based on the current rules and restrictions that are emerging.
There is another term that is important to know here — the ambiguity effect. It’s the assumption that we will do what we can in our daily and economic lives to avoid risk and to only invest in things that have certainty. If we don’t much about something, we tend to not hang around to see how it will play out. If we meet someone who seems a bit ‘shady’, we walk away. We make assumptions about their character and about how safe we feel in their presence. Even if we are wrong.
In one sense, we now exist in a social space where we have made this assumption true–whether or not it is. This is one area that has already begun to alter the way we relate to each other as a species. Are we in uncertain times? Yes. However, we must remind ourselves of the fact that the times themselves are just that, a time that is between two points. A beginning of the pandemic, and it’s eventual end. If we come out of this thinking we are still in this pandemic, we will live our lives trying to create a false sense of control over an environment that no longer exists – yet, will allow us to justify a lifelong belief system that protects us from something that is no longer there.
If, as a species, we have shown that we crave relationship, touch, and connection – and we allow the Coronavirus to have the last word, then we not only allow a virus to then dictate our fate, we also willingly create a paradigm in our society that will justify fearing one another out of a possibility of something that could be eradicated. It’s our choice, right?