Shankar Vedantam had planned to take his podcast and weekly show Hidden Brain to the stage at Boston's Wilbur Theatre this weekend, but the performance was postponed to June in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Shankar discussed his program and how fear plays into understanding the coronavirus with WGBH All Things Considered host Arun Rath earlier this week.
Arun Rath: I know you've talked recently about the nature of fear. It's one of our strongest emotions, and how it's evolved over time - fear can make us smart by getting us out of danger, but it can also make us irrational. I'm curious how you're seeing this play out now.
Shankar Vedantam: I think you're exactly right. Without fear, we'd all be dead by the time we're five years old because we wouldn't avoid things that are dangerous and threatening. Fear is vital, it plays a hugely functional role in our lives. Unfortunately, it can also play a dysfunctional role, prompting us to be afraid of things that don't require our fear and prompting us to undercount or not perceive the full scale of threats that are before us. One of the complicated things with an evolving threat like the coronavirus outbreak is it's very hard to know exactly how afraid we should be. You can paint a scenario where in three weeks, much of this has died down and things will be largely under control. You can also paint a scenario in three weeks time where things are really dire, and we'll wish we had acted earlier and much more dramatically. I think this is the sort of situation where it's really important for us to actually have institutions that we can trust, because at this point public health officials at the CDC, people at the NIH, they often have the best information in terms of what needs to be done, and at this point it's the data and the evidence that are our best friends.
Rath: Something else I wonder about is, with humans being social animals, how we deal with a public health crisis like this. We've heard talk about changing behavior, everything from washing hands to not touching our faces. One might think that we'd evolve in a way to change those behaviors easily when faced with something that would threaten our species or our lives. Why is it so hard? Is there something about the evolution that I'm not seeing?
Vedantam: It's really in many ways the central message of what I call the "hidden brain," which is that in much of our daily lives, we think we are acting consciously and intentionally - that I'm choosing to touch my face or not touch my face - but the reality is that for much our lives, our behavior is on autopilot. We are doing things without really thinking about it, and there's good reason for that. If you were actually thinking about every single thing you were doing at every moment of the day, you would be exhausted by nine o'clock in the morning. In many ways, our minds have to operate in a way that allow us to function on autopilot. It's very helpful much of the time, but in a situation like this, where there's a set of behaviors you want to change but they're habits we've built over many years, it's really, really difficult to change on a dime.
Rath: Are the people in charge of the public health response, at least some of them - are they aware of how our brains work and are they trying to instruct is in a way that takes that into account?
Vedantam: Absolutely. I think there's been a lot of work looking at the psychology of what happens during disease outbreaks. The situation could be different in different countries, like an authoritarian regime like China for example where they can shut down an entire part of the country and prevent people from moving, essentially a police action, that's a very different situation than you have in a democratic regime like the United States, where people aren't used to having the army on the streets telling them what to do. In a democratic setup, you really need the consent of people to participate in whatever public health outreach you're doing. It's really important to have the goodwill of people to say, I trust the information I'm getting is not partisan in any way, it's not biased in any way, there's no hidden agenda, people are being straight with me. That's how in a democratic setup you get buy-in to have people say, yes, I recognize that it's an imposition on me to not be able to go to a sports stadium with 30,000 other fans, but I recognize it's good for me to do that, and it's good for the community if I do that. I think a lot of people are thinking about the best ways to do this, but one of the problems I think we have in the United States is that politics has touched so many different parts of our lives that when we hear instructions or advice from important people in positions of authority, it's often filtered through a political lens where we ask ourselves, is this information coming to us because it's in our best interest, or is it because it's in the interest of the administration that happens to be in power?