The Highest Good

In the midst of a crisis, the last thing people want to hear about is academic theory. What good are esoteric ideas when one’s health is imperiled, one’s job is threatened, and one’s retirement savings are evaporating? As well, most people don’t pull up a blog to get a dose of behavioral economics.

Theories, however, are useful to understand WHY a large group of people behave a certain way and what we might do to correct the behavior. Plus, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to flex the behavioral economics parts of my brain post teaching and book-writing. So, please, bear with me.

When there is a concerted chorus of medical expertise, from the WHO to the CDC, saying we should stay home and keep safe distances in order to minimize the negative health and long-term economic impact of coronavirus, why are so many Americans still ignoring or even openly defying this advice? These nay-sayers are generally educated, not anti-medical people, who follow medical wisdom. So, why not now?

From my removed position living in Spain, I have taken to monitoring more social media to stay connected to my friends back in the States. I also read the daily toll the virus takes each day here in Spain, in neighboring Italy, and around the world.

Reading these accounts at the same time as I see the still denying/defiant voices coming from America just seems incongruous, like saying gravity won’t affect their dancing on a tightrope.

The sense here in Spain, that sacrifice yields both personal and societal benefits, is at the heart of people not violating the lockdown.

Collaborating with others is not a sacrifice, but being part of the team. Those that defy the collective effort for their own gain are vilified for hurting everyone, not celebrated for rugged (and foolhardy) individualism.

Many have theories why Americans seem in denial or resist, often addressing it as a moral/ethical issue. As I said, I tend to look at things from a behavioral economics point of view.

I have written before how people tend to not make a thorough cost/benefit analysis of choices. We tend to only compare the benefits of our choices without factoring in the costs of each option.

As difficult as it is to compare two personal options (Do I save my money or spend it on a vacation?), now, with the current crisis, people need to add another factor to the process of weighing personal benefits (P+) or costs (P-), that of societal benefits (S+) and costs (S-).

In doing such multi-variable cost/benefit analysis, I see some similar patterns of calculating error:

–       People ignore S+/S-, only weighing P+/P-. I see so many people justifying breaking the ban with “I just want to go to the beach” or “If I don’t go to the gym, I’ll get out of shape.” There is no factoring in societal impact because such a variable is too big or too complicated, so people ignore it to reduce the dilemma to a bite size (but incomplete) equation.

Hint: using “I just…” is a giveaway. Even when confronted with societal factors in decision-making, many often negate societal factors or re-categorize them as someone else’s personal factor with statements like, “Who personally benefits from our doing this? They must be secretly behind it!”

–        People measure P+/P- and S+S- as all equal without regard to numbers or quality. Fifty pennies are obviously worth less than one dollar; no one would equate the two. Yet, I’ve  heard people say “Why should many of us hurt economically because a handful of people, already susceptible, are dying?” Even initially expressed like that, the advocate of such an argument will at some point reveal that he or she is not so much concerned with “us” hurting economically as the precariousness of their own position (Hint: watch for “my” to start creeping into the conversation).

Thus, what they are really saying is my P- > S-, always, no matter the magnitude or quality of the S-. Even comparing one-on-one, people tend to value THEIR fifty pennies as more valuable than SOMEONE ELSE’S fifty, reflected in the statement “Why should I give up my freedom because another person may be harmed by the disease?”

–        In America, there is a belief that S+ always = P-. Americans knee-jerk demonize socialism even while they enjoy, even advocate for, the command economy features of our own system (social security, health and safety regulations, public education, and potential government bailouts of industries).

It’s become endemic in American political thinking to conflate and confuse community, communal, and communism, throwing them all into the “Stalinism” barrel of evil.

So, whenever Americans are asked to work together, let alone give up something for the long-term good of the whole, many recoil in horror. It goes against the American ethos of individualism, free market, even economic natural selection.

There is an admired, cowboy-like machismo to bucking the herd and going one’s own path, even if that path is illogical and leads to ruin. What we call resilience in adults we would call throwing a cross-armed, defiant tantrum in a toddler.

Hint: You see it in “I’m not giving up my lifestyle because some egg-head scientist or politician in Washington tells me to!” They will also decry any change in behavior as a “surrender” of rights that will lead to a police state. Look for people quickly moving from the actual measure being discussed to “What’s next?”

Americans need to learn the skills to balance multiple variables of different qualities. Short term, perhaps the approach should be to re-cast societal considerations as personal ones.

If Joe doesn’t mind some people he doesn’t know getting sick “for the good of the economy” or another spurious reason, ask Joe if he minds pervasive illness causing his taxes to go up, or the government having to cut back on programs that he benefits from? If people who can’t afford testing or to stay at home, after all, they will go to work, maybe where Joe goes, maybe where Joe’s child goes.

Long term, we need to not only teach more economics and the art of decision-making, but how to do complex variable (personal and societal) cost-benefit analysis.

It also wouldn’t hurt to have a few more “It’s OK to be second and put the group first” messages.

When America was shocked by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, it caused an intense examination of our educational curriculum, with “new math” being adopted to better train Americans to compete. I would suggest we use this crisis to re-evaluate our curriculum, but not so more Americans can compete, but so that more can survive.

3 thoughts on “The Highest Good”

  1. I think you are maybe, just a bit, setting up a straw man argument. People have knee jerk reaction to government rules because the government makes a lot of bad rules that don’t benefit society, they just restrict personal freedom. They have not earned the trust of the people through their actions. If people were indeed discounting societal good versus their personal benefits then how do you explain that the US is always rated among the top three or four most charitable (per capita) nations in the world? How is giving away your money by your own choice to benefit others anything but choosing societal good over your own? But we do it freely here and do it better than almost every other country. Here in rural America I haven’t seen one instance of people making bad health choices and spreading disease. Our state infection curve is as flat as a pancake even though we are one of only a few states without shelter in place or stay at home rules. Because we do care about our neighbors and we will not risk their health. Not because some politician says that is what we should do but because we are mature enough to balance our rights with societies good.

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  2. It is a strange situation in the US where doing things for the greater good is viewed as putting one/all of us at risk for a capricious police state . . . I once tried reasoning with someone who had that perspective by saying a refusal to social distance is similar to harming others with 2nd hand smoke where your choice is a detrimental choice being made for others. Didn’t work and I was called a “sheeple”.

    Reminds me of how a few years ago at a high school reunion in CA (35th or 40th) when spoke with several male classmates who were so vehement about any taxation that benefits “others”; it was such a strong sense of “I have got mine” (and worked very hard for it) and to hell with anyone else. Left me feeling very sad.

    Anyway, good to know you are weathering this crisis in Spain. I had hoped to visit Granada in June and try some Spanish classes at the university to decide if I would come for a year but that all is on hold . . .

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