What happened?

How could the President of the United States and the very bright people who advise have gotten it so wrong? Or did they? Could it be that they are caught up in the same psychological dynamics as the rest of us? Could it be that the are simply responding as individual human beings facing a threat they don’t understand?

I suspect that this is what is happening. Being President of the United States, or being an advisor or close associate to the President of the United States, does not automatically isolate you from the evolved tribal psychology which is part of our individual and social instinctive heritage.

When I try to understand how Donald Trump and his advisors got it so wrong in their  response to the Covid-19 crisis, this is the only explanation which makes some degree of sense.

Emotion based fight responses are not helpful in the face of a social health crisis

Human beings respond instinctively. when faced with a threat. Psychologists know that that flight / fight / freeze response.

Donald Trump is a man who almost always responds in a fight way to something that he experiences as a threat. Just listen to his language in his address to the Nation on Wednesday night: “This is most aggressive ….”.

So, it’s not surprising that as President of the United States, he responded to this social threat as if it was a personal threat. He chose to initiate actions which blamed others, and is aggressive towards them. To me, this underlying dynamic explains the fact that he would initiate a 30-day travel from Europe ban without consultation with other national leaders.

It is not clear that this ban will be effective. It does not address that fact that the Covid-19 virus is already present in the US.

See https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/06/doctor-who-treated-first-us-coronavirus-patient-says-covid-19-has-been-circulating-unchecked-for-weeks.html

The characterization of the coronavirus as a foreign virus is what you would expect from an individual who is completely centered in his tribal sense of the world, and his normal fight response to any perceived threat. Given what we know about the President’s propensity to only accept advice which lines up with his own understanding of things, it’s not surprising to me that he has taken what he thought was a reassuring act. It may have been emotionally reassuring to him. But as the stock market reaction on this Thursday morning has demonstrated, it’s not reassuring to many other people.

Emotion based flight responses are not helpful in the face of a social health crisis.

A flight-based response to the coronavirus threat is also not very helpful. Those people who advocate large-scale mandatory social distancing, without regard for the economic or individual consequences that this will have, are exhibiting this kind of response. They are fleeing from the reality of what needs to be done by arguing that people should be kept from interacting with one another.

In fact, the best hope that we have getting beyond the impact of the coronavirus is in thoughtful interaction with one another. That thoughtful interaction requires that we shape the way we interact socially in a way which minimizes the transmission of the virus. That takes thought first, and then collaboration second, not unthoughtful coercion.

Limiting the social events in which come together randomly in close quarters for a period of time is one way to deal with social transmission of the virus. Shaping the behaviour of people who must gather (e.g. using mask, hand washing on entering and leaving rooms, ensuring that filtered ventilation is turned on etc) are others. A set of best practices around this need to be developed and disseminated. Simply telling people to stop interacting with one another is a flight response, not a thoughtful response.  

Technology offers us alternatives way to socially interact in a way that minimizes the possibility of virus transmission. Webinars, web based meetings, one-on-one web conferencing, working from home, …. are all technology enabled solutions to the problems. However,we need insight into how this will impact the loads on the current Internet infrastructure. Upgrades may be needed.  Paying for this increased use of this technology may very well need ‘fast track’ government funding support.

Crisis management experts have part of the answer: consistent messaging is reassuring

In the last decades, we have learned a lot about how to manage the social messaging during a crisis in a social media era. Basic human psychology had not changed. But the way in which messages are passed from person to person in our society has.

The first and most important requirement is consistent messaging. In a social media democratic society, unlike an authoritarian one (e.g. China), national leaders must not shut down the way people use social media to communicate around and about their concerns.

Instead, they must work together to craft a set of messages that is consistent and is perceived to be reassuring. In order for these message to be perceived to be reassuring, the leader must ask, and take into account, what will reassure all of the members of a society. If they do so, they will invariably find that the messaging must be layered, and continue elements that reassure different communities in the society in different ways: health care providers, employers, employees, issue experts and so on. They worst thing social leaders can do is act as if they know just what it is that will reassure each of these communities.

Once again, the current political leadership in America has assumed exactly that. Instead of using the Internet and social media to get insight into people’s fears around the spread and the impact of the coronavirus, they have assumed that they know what is reassuring. But when political leaders do so, they are really on messaging based on their own personal emotional flight / flight / freeze responses, not acting as effective modern societal leaders. They are substituting ego for their need to be socially responsible.

Lack of consistent messaging from societal leaders in the face of a social crisis is in and of itself a profound message.

“We, your political and expert leaders, are competing

rather than collaborating in the face of this social crisis.”

Human beings, at a deep level, evolved as tribal beings. In the face of crisis, we look to our perceived leaders for reassurance that we will get past the crisis and for action statements that convince us that we in fact will succeed in doing so.

When those leaders (national, regional, and local) openly disagree about how to respond to the crisis, we are anything but reassured. Social media is very effective at making this lack of agreement apparent to every one in the society. Our sense of panic deepens. That is what seems to be happening, at least in America.

An effective societal crisis manager leader convenes collaborative dialogue which leads to consistent social messaging about a response to the crisis which has both short-term and long-term elements.

The best way to do that of course is to convene social dialogue among a set of presentative members of each of the communities impacted about by the crisis issue. Bringing together political leaders, health care leaders with a representative set of individuals from across the society and crafting a set of consistent, reassuring messages can reduce the social panic that will occur.

Unfortunately, the current United States President has demonstrated time and time again that convening dialogue in order to produce cohesion and consensus is not one of his strengths, or one of the strengths of his administration. As a result, we have seen a confused and competing set of messaging from the very group of American individuals whose messaging needs to be consistent.  

Social media makes this lack of cohesion / collaboration apparent at all levels of society. It forces the burden of shifting through these messages to determine which ones make sense down to the individual level. Individuals will try to do so, but their shifting will be profoundly impacted by their personal flight / fight / freeze response to a perceived threat. Growing panic is the result. That is what seems to be happening in America.


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