Thursday, March 12, 2020

Conformity and Contagion

There are two fundamental truths about human beings that I always keep in mind.

First, the natural human condition is to be a conformist. People do not generally like to separate themselves too far from the herd.

Second, there is nothing more contagious than fear.

We are seeing both in vivid detail right now.

I was early in predicting that the Wuhan coronavirus would present a significant challenge to the world. These are passages that I wrote in January.
The most effective way to stop an outbreak of a virus such as this one is to aggressively isolate and quarantine those that are ill so as to not infect other people. They need to be identified, treated aggressively by medical professionals, and isolated.
There was no better place to do that than in a totalitarian country such as China. However, China waited too long, and despite drastic measures that affected hundreds of millions of people, the entire world is paying the price now.
The human impact of the virus is enormous but if the outbreak of the virus cannot be contained the economic impact will soon add another dimension to the human suffering.
We often don't realize the precarious perch that our lives are built on. A lot of that is based on the confidence that underlies our economic system. It doesn't take much to disrupt that equilibrium and the confidence that goes with it. When people don't have the confidence to do business, shop, travel and interact, the economy quickly tanks.

It was shortly after I wrote the last passage that President Trump announced on January 30 that he was restricting flights from China. It was criticized by many at that time as an overreaction.

Credit: New York Times, January 31, 2020

This was before Canada, Japan and South Korea and most EU countries did the same. At that time, most just advised their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China. Italy suspended flights beginning on January 31. In retrospect, that was a couple of weeks too late considering the heavy travel patterns between China and Italy.

Say what you want about President Trump but he is not a conformist in the way most politicians are. He is not afraid to separate himself from the herd. He has done it a number of times on a number of issues.

However, he is not immune from the pull of conformity and the target you become when you don't follow the herd. For example, for several weeks I have believed that flights from Europe (especially Italy) should have been banned. We are now learning from the CDC that 70% of all new cases in the United States have been traced back to Europe. 

It is not easy separating yourself from the herd. It goes against most human instincts. It always feels safer and secure to conform. After all, there has always been much greater risk to stray from the herd or crowd. 

Why didn't President Trump shut off flights from Europe earlier? Do you think the earlier heat he took on China might have had something to do with that? We shut the door on China but left the backdoor open with Europe. We are paying the price for that now.

You often feel better and more secure in conforming and not sticking your head out from the crowd. It is harder to be called out or criticized if you are doing what everyone else is doing. However, the crowd you are following can sometimes be heading in the wrong direction.

This was demonstrated a few years ago in a research study at the University of Leeds conducted by Professor Jens Krause.

The study showed that it takes a minority of just five percent to influence a crowd's direction - and that the other 95 percent follow without even realizing what is going on.Professor Krause, with PhD student John Dyer, conducted a series of experiments in which groups of volunteers walked randomly around a large hall. Within the group, a few received instructions regarding where to walk. Participants were not allowed to communicate with one or intentionally influence anyone.
The findings in all cases revealed that the informed individuals were followed by the others in the crowd, forming a self-organizing, snake-like structure (or flock of sheep, take your pick). 
"We've all been in situations where we got swept along by a crowd," said Professor Krause. "But what's interesting about this research is that our participants ended up making a consensus decision despite the fact that they weren't allowed to talk or gesture to one another. In most cases the participants didn't realize they were being led by others at all." 

This is consistent with the observations of sales and motivation consultant, Cavett Robert, who I have quoted in these pages in the past.

“Since 95 percent of the people are imitators and only 5 percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.” 
                                                                       – Cavett Robert

If you need any proof of that assertion look no further than what has happened this week in the United States.

I wrote another blog post earlier this week where I mentioned that the Ohio's Governor Mike Dewine had recommended that all sporting events in the state be closed to the public and only viewed on tv. He also recommended all Ohio colleges eliminate in-person classes. Ohio State and other schools announced those actions a short time later

The MAC basketball championship quickly stated that it would ban all public attendance at games this week. The Big West conference followed suit. 

I wrote at the time that it would not take take much for this to go much further.

It would not surprise me to see the NCAA basketball tournament that is scheduled to begin next week end up with a similar fate. The first round play-in games are scheduled for Dayton, Ohio beginning on Tuesday. 
What about The Masters? Opening Day for major league baseball? NHL hockey and NBA basketball? It will not take much more before these will be tv events only. How far is this going to go?

The only real surprise to me is how fast it has occurred. I have barely been able to comprehend the news today as it was reported. Whatever you thought you knew was outdated within minutes by a more drastic cancellation or closure.

All conference basketball tournaments cancelled. 

NBA. NHL. MLB. MLS, NCAA Tournament. All games cancelled. The pros may yet play again this season but the college players are done.

No one wants to stand out from the crowd. Everyone is taking their cues from someone else. 

Broadway is closed as of tonight. How long until all movie theaters are closed?

We are seeing the same thing play out in other areas.

Which organization or company is going to want to have a business meeting or conference? Who is willing to go against the grain? Just the same, who was willing to cancel a meeting a month ago when most everyone else was still meeting? Very, very few. Why stand out from the crowd? I bet Biogen wishes they had done so.

Ohio's Dewine upped the ante again today banning all gatherings of over 100 people. That covers a lot of ground---casinos, theaters, arenas. large conference rooms, parades, festivals, etc in the state. It does exempt church services.

He also ordered all public and private schools to be closed for at least three weeks.

Keep in mind this is in a state with five confirmed cases at this time and no deaths.

I am not saying that all of this should not have been done. It may be exactly what is needed. Perhaps it should have been done two weeks ago. My point is that what has occurred in the last few days has resulted more by the pull of conformity than anything else. I was not science or statistics. Those did not change appreciably in the last couple of days. You can also be sure that many states will follow the lead of Dewine.

That is how powerful the force of conformity is in human beings. It also shows the importance of having the leaders and initiators among us making sound judgments and good decisions. If not, we will find ourselves on the wrong path. There are so many willing followers we better have great leaders to follow.

In addition, no matter how contagious Covid-19 is, it is nothing compared to the contagion of fear that surrounds everything and everyone right now. 

You see it in the stock market.

You see it in people stripping the shelves of toilet paper, paper towels, bottled water and hand sanitizers.

You see it in the conformity of actions this week.

Again, I warned of all of this in an earlier post several weeks ago. There really is nothing more contagious in human beings than fear and panic.  

Panic driven by the unknown right now seems to be a bigger danger to all of us than the virus. We have seen what happened to the stock market last week. Of course, financial markets loath uncertainty and we have seen that in volumes in the past week.
We have already seen international air travel drop dramatically. I would expect that we will soon see the same in domestic air travel. I would expect restaurants, bars, theaters and other venues that host large numbers of people around Seattle, and in places in California where cases have been identified, will see precipitous drops in business. Retail shops will also suffer except for grocery stores which may struggle to keep their shelves full due to panic buying.
We may see this story unfold across this country if the virus cannot be contained. It may get very, very ugly before it gets better. Most people will survive the virus. It is an open question how many will survive the potential economic fallout.

It has gotten very ugly. I have no doubt it will get even uglier.

However, the one thing I am certain of is that we will overcome all of this.

Human innovation and ingenuity are also key attributes of the human condition.

We will adapt, adjust and invent ways to deal with this threat. What has to be done, will be done, and it will be accomplished much quicker than most would predict at this time.

Stay safe...and sane. Just realize that the latter might be more difficult than the former right now.

No comments:

Post a Comment