Roy F. Baumeister is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Queensland. His research area spans multiple topics, including self and identity, self-regulation, meaning, and aggression. He has written 40 books, over 670 publications, and is among the most cited psychologists in the world. He has received several major awards including the William James Fellow Award and the Jack Block Award.
Transcription of the video
One thing that people might hope for is that there will be a greater sense of social solidarity, that we’re all working together. In our thinking about cultural change, there are changes that split and divide people and there are changes that bring people together. External threat certainly falls in the category of events that can bring a society together. So it would be in principle possible that coping with, this plague, this external threat, would be something that would increase members of the society’s sense of finding something together. We might fantasize that it even would work at a global level, that we all around the world would realize, that as common humanity and with our common vulnerability to illness, we’re all coping with the same problem. That’s probably a bit much to hope for. But it could certainly work in countries that get through this by cooperating and working together.
I think stressing the common humanity would help us enjoy this unifying effect. We have to resist the temptation to blame each other or to expect the government to solve it or to look to divisive forces in our society.
Clearly the economic damage is a serious concern, which could compromise our society for a long period of time and potentially stunt the careers in life courses of countless young people who are at critical stages in their careers and in their life development. Another related thing is that lots of politicians look at a crisis as something they can use to advance their own agenda. And the phrase “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” means oh, there’s a problem, now we have a pandemic and people are getting sick. But, this is a chance to advance our other goals that we may have had before the pandemic was even an idea or concern in anyone’s mind, let alone a reality. So, what happens in many of these cases will be an expansion of government power, more structures, more bureaucracy, and people when they are worried they are more willing to give up some of their freedom, see to an authority, which will take care of them. Now, it’s an illusion, in this case, it’s not clear if the government can really take care of us, the pandemic is a disease, but that would be the natural human impulse. One of the big ideas in there is demosclerosis, that as a state goes on, decade after decade, that it accumulates a stronger bureaucracy, more getting tied into special interests, who use the government for their own benefit, and prevent the government from doing its job to produce the general welfare.
I think one thing that psychological research shows is that the formula for self-destructive behavior is to pursue short-term gain at long-term cost. If we create an economic depression that lasts for years, that will cost lives too. Also do enormous damage to the quantity and quality of life that many people enjoy. Understand that your careers have critical stages. So if you reach the critical stage during an economic downturn or depression, you don’t have the opportunities to move up that you would have if when times were good. Society recovers and the job opportunities open up again at some point, but then they go to the younger people. And so if you were at that critical point at that time, even though the effect of the depression is temporary for society, it’s permanent for you. We also have, we have the idea that by staying home, we can save people’s lives and well it does certainly reduce transmission of the pandemic. But, it’s easy to not notice, there are other costs too. If people are not going out for their routine medical care, there’ll be less cancer screening, there’ll be less all sorts of minor things that can help people live better and longer lives. And so deaths may increase. I’ve seen some people estimated the long term costs and death from other causes, from things that are neglected during the pandemic could outweigh the death toll of the pandemic itself, especially if you make adjustment for the people dying from it are mostly people who are old and sick and so the number of months of life lost might be smaller for them. Be aware of the tendency of the mind to focus on short term problems and neglect long term future ones which are vaguer and less palpable, but down the road may end up being more costly.
Back in the 90s, when my research was settling into the two major programs that have guided it ever since I did a project on the side to review an article called Bad is Stronger Than Good. I’m convinced this is one of the basic patterns of the human mind. That it focuses more on negative things than on positive things. And so, in terms of understanding the pandemic and the problems we’re having with it, yes, it’s a real problem. I’m not saying it’s not. People are getting sick, some people are dying. But, almost certainly, we are overestimating how bad it is. That’s just how the mind works. And my fear is when it’s a collective thing, it probably escalates even more than when it’s a private, one person sort of thing. Because people will see the alarm in each other and a lot of people who are overreacting will fuel each other’s fears and produce a spiral of ever greater overreaction. So, again, I’m not trying to say it’s not a serious problem. Yes, people are getting sick, and some are dying. But understand that it’s a property of the human mind to overestimate the problems and the danger and the downside.