Covid-19 – Character, fear and hope

It started with panic-buying of toilet paper. In response to a respiratory virus. Some people stocked up while others made fun of their silliness – and then went and bought some extra just to be sure.

Within a day or so the panic spread to paper towel, tissues and hand sanitizer, and within a week the pasta, flour, rice, sugar, bread mix and taco shell shelves were empty. Apparently figuring out that those things were not meals, the next to go were fresh mince and chicken. Gradually, the panic spread to most fresh foods, and then the freezers they could be stored in. These were not people simply buying a little extra – this was stockpiling for Armageddon.

On my neighbourhood Fakebook page a generous lady was offering to sell face-masks designed for operating machinery (but useless against the virus) and was being taken up on that offer. A local entrepreneur was selling 5 litre containers of disinfectant hand wash (not sanitizer), despite plain soap and thorough hand washing being just as effective. Did I mention soap was selling out too?

Photo credit Liam Kidston Source: News Corp Australia

With photos circulating of empty supermarket shelves, even those who didn’t initially panic-buy felt forced to get into the act, with many cases of queuing outside of the crowded supermarkets. Yes, with the fear of infection in the air, literally, people were gathering close together in large groups. In other areas, buses (necessarily featuring people in close proximity to each other in enclosed spaces) travelled from cities with empty supermarket shelves to nearby small towns, where they assiduously emptied their shelves too. If this isn’t one step away from roving gangs of raiders in a post-apocalyptic world (nod to Fallout fans) I don’t know what is.

Finally, in the last couple of days our prime minister was broadly reported for acting like a prime minister (i.e., committed an unequivocal act of leadership), saying this, “On bulk purchasing of supplies: Stop hoarding. I can’t be more blunt about it. Stop it” … “It’s not sensible, its not helpful…” … “That is not who we are as a people. It is not necessary. It is not something that people should be doing” … “There is no reason for people to be hoarding supplies for fear of a lock down or anything like this” … “I am seeking Australia’s common-sense cooperation…” … “Stop doing it, it’s ridiculous, it’s un-Australian, and it must stop. I would ask people to do the right thing by each other…” … “We’re all in this together”…  And, a day later, supermarkets still struggle to keep up with demand, despite increased supply and overnight refilling.

Much less-well reported was perhaps the most important comment by the health minister, “We have strong supplies in Australia… in terms of food we one of the best equipped, if not the best equipped, nations in the world.” A moment on google finds support for this position – Australia produces far more than double the food it needs. We’re also not bad at producing paper products.

So, with little rationality behind it, what compelled the same people who so generously supported those affected so recently by droughts, fires and floods, to be so selfish and irrational now?


The fear response

The fear response is immensely influential. It’s role is to prevent loss, especially linked to survival within a socially competitive yet interdependent group, in environments experienced by our ancient ancestors (expressed today as “basic needs”, or intrinsic motivation.) In evolutionary terms the fear response system had to take over when a threat was detected, at the expense of every other thought, focus or action, and it works  the same way now. It heightens our senses and focuses our attention. It powers up ancient, mostly non-conscious emotional/intuitive (to borrow from Epstein) brain regions and triggers hormones that prepare the body for physical activity – fight or flight. At the same time, it reduces blood flow to the prefrontal cortex – the “smart” brain. This reduction in energy reduces the capacity for rationality, imagination, problem-solving and behavioural control, allowing the powerful, emotional, survival-oriented priorities to dominate without interference. Here’s a graphic that shows how the faster emotional/intuitive system is favoured, and how it affects our ability to respond and our response type.

The prefrontal cortex also seems to be home to a large proportion of self-consciousness, so we are less capable – as well as less capable of realising that we are less capable. As a result, there is an effective IQ deterioration in favour of those base survival behaviours – effectively, we become dumber and more focused on protecting ourselves. And it gets worse for rationality. The powerful, fast emotional/intuitive system influences the weaker, slow cognitive/rational system to support those impulses, seeing it selectively draw on “facts” as justification and support for them. Evolutionarily this was helpful, as, in the face of mortal danger, equivocation or hesitation was more dangerous to survival than impulsive reactions. Today, it is mostly known as confirmation bias.

What’s worse than a self-justifying fear response on its own? Reinforcement through herd mentality. Many of our intuitive decisions are based on what we perceive to be the wisdom of others. For example, imagine there are two cafes on the same street. One is busy, the other is empty. Which do you feel more confident about? Herd mentality is a useful ally to bounded rationality, where we don’t have all the facts (do we ever?) to make a perfect decision so must fill the gaps with intuition, the input and reactions of others, and other cues.

This means that when everyone else goes out and panic buys, even when we are assured that shelves will be filled daily and we know that once cupboards and freezers are full, people simply can’t buy more at the same rate, we still feel compelled to go out and join the throng. It takes all our rationality, and intrinsic motivation for a protecting or enhancing a preferred identity (perhaps as “smart”, “calm”, “controlled” or “selfless” – or even as someone who “doesn’t follow the crowd”), to deliberately choose not to do the same thing.


Responding to the fear response

So what was the prime minister’s goal in saying these things, and why did he NOT focus on the nation’s food and supply chain security, which is surely, rationally, the strongest argument? Knowing that the problem was not rational, meaning that a rational response would be less effective, he took a different approach. The first thing he focused on, and was most widely reported, related to emotion and identity – texts and subtexts saying (sic), “we are better than this, you are better than this, this reflects badly on you, you should be ashamed, society thinks less of you, you are a stupid selfish fool who, through your actions, is putting others at risk”. (To be fair to those caught up in the panic, he may well have looked in the mirror and said similar things about his own responses to emergencies earlier this year.)

He left it to his health minister and others to be more rationally-focused, knowing that such a factual focus is not emotionally appealing to broadcasters, would not attract as much attention, would not appeal to those gripped by panic and would in any case not be trusted by those who didn’t trust him. Simply, the facts are not as influential as the fear, so the prime minister looked to another fear – the fear of loss of self-esteem and social position linked to preferred identity, with a hefty dose of nationalism (also linked to fear and identity). It might not be as strong a fear as starving or, for some, the unknown, but, as a core intrinsic motivator, it’s much stronger than rationality and it is a clear director for immediate action.

The lesson here is one for all leaders to take on board – if the people you are leading don’t feel they can easily act to make themselves safe within their environment and influence, they will probably be irrational, greedy, uncooperative, illogical and self-centred. They can’t help it for the most part, it’s how their brains are designed. Part of being the leader is to down-regulate that unwanted response to allow for other, preferable motives and responses to take its place.

So while you may want to talk about logic and objective truths, or focus on the “common good,” in that fearful state people are not as concerned, and not capable of being concerned, about the welfare of others as they are about self-protection. So, to be effective, model sincere calm and confidence, and then speak to their intrinsic drives for connection, identity, empowerment and pain-avoidance/pleasure-seeking in the context of physical, psychological and social safety.

Examples subtexts might include:

  • I’m calm and confident, so you can follow my lead and be calm too.
  • If you do these things, you will be safe / I will protect you / we will protect you. If you do those things we can’t and won’t protect you. (Safety)
  • How you choose to act reflects your character, and we will think of you / treat you / protect, enhance or demote your social status accordingly. (Identity)
  • We care for you, and we will care for you more, the more you care for others. (Connection)
  • You get to choose how you respond to this situation. (Empowerment, control)
  • You will enjoy the feeling of, and reflecting upon, being unselfish, liked, respected, a part of our social group, and self-directing in how you do those things more than you will dislike the immediate and longer-term losses that come with unwanted behaviours or being embarrassed/directed into action. (Pain-avoidance/pleasure-seeking)

Ideally, through focusing on positivity toward protecting and enhancing safety and basic need fulfilment (an “approach” schema), the neural process shown earlier can be influenced helpfully, as shown by the blue sections in the diagram below, with practiced awareness (part of self-regulation and resilience) augmented by positive external influence:

Now we’re ready for some sensible thinking and smart choices!



After the initial panicked reaction, and the disgusted reaction to the panic reaction, stories are emerging of selflessness and compassion. For example, of the guy who picked up the last time on the shelf, only to look up moment later and see an elderly lady looking disappointedly at the empty shelf further down the aisle. His response? To take it to her.

On our local Fakebook page there have been offers by young people to buy groceries for older and quarantined people in the neighbourhood, and for some to take things like jigsaw puzzles and other things to those who are housebound for 2 weeks. At no inconvenience at all, we took an exercise bike we weren’t using to a local resident who was self-quarantined so couldn’t get the gym.

In our suburb and many others, people who realise they have more than they need have been seeking out others who need those things more. Some self-isolating residents in Melbourne have awoken to gifts left on their doorsteps by thoughtful neighbours. There is an apartment block in Melbourne that has bonded to share food, stories and support, in person where safe, online for high-risk residents. It was just a matter of compassion, connection and momentum – one resident (Di Kilsby) started, and others quickly joined in. Similar community-based care initiatives are popping up across the country, and, as fear abates and panic subsides, this more fulfilling, rewarding and helpful response is likely to catch on more broadly.

Perhaps the next, and perhaps more complex, opportunities for compassion will come with how “big” government, finance and business sectors coordinate and cope with the severe and uneven economic impacts, from loss of income and disruptions to cash flow for businesses, to layoffs and inability to meet rental and mortgage payments for employees. How might the world’s financial systems cope with upheavals that simply don’t fit their model? Will their leaders be as compassionate and community-minded as their citizens, employees and customers are broadly becoming? As our relatives, neighbours and community members, let’s hope so.

Let’s also hope that our politicians take an unequivocal leadership role, both in sentiment and action, in that aspect of this problem too. Let’s hope they use the same types of language and underlying sentiments, asking them to show their character and put their claimed values and ethics into practice. A bank that cares about its retail customers? Prove it. An employer who cares about employees and customers? Prove it. Employees who care about their peers, employer and customers? Prove it. A government that supports the well-being of its citizens? Prove it.

This is also a time for governments, banks and financial markets to choose between numbers and people. A government that truly supports business and jobs? Prove it. A business bank that supports small and large business? Prove it. A political, financial system and tax system that exists to serve its citizens and understands that economies will recover quicker and more efficiently if they are not destroyed through temporary and uncontrollable cash flow deficits? Prove it. To their credit, many government and banks have been proactive in this area – but time will tell how they manage it on a case-by-case basis as the situation escalates in scope and time. My hope, and I am somewhat hopeful in this, is they are smart and long-sighted enough to not destroy their own systems, incomes, asset-bases, communities and self-interest by destroying those of others, irrespective of “policy”.

A large part of my hope comes not only from what we have seen already, but in the deeper, stronger, compulsion of satisfying intrinsic needs for safety and basic need fulfilment to outweigh short term socially constructed extrinsic measures of financial performance and success. What matters most to a business leader? Her family or her P&L? The social stability of his community or his corner office? Their reputation as money-makers or their reputations as a self-interested, greedy victimisers of those (typically smaller businesses and private individuals) who were unable to defend or provide for themselves through no fault of their own and only temporarily? Will our community and business leaders choose to be the ones who, figuratively, hoard? Or those who show their character and social (not just coercive) leadership quality when they freely choose to use their own car and time to collect groceries for their neighbours?

How will we reward (vote for them, give them our business, tell our stories that acknowledge them) or penalise them (vote them out, take away our business, tell our stories that name and shame them) for their choices? My hope is not merely optimistically attached to the innate selfless goodness of those who are best-equipped, at every level of society, to be compassionate and generous, but in what the choices we all make say to ourselves and others about our identity and character. My hope is not just that people will want to feel good about themselves, their neighbours and their status in the community, but that they can understand and manage their fears and deepest motivations quickly to act for their own fulfilment and well-being, as well as that of others, sooner rather than later.