November 18, 2020

Holidays Undercover: Faulty Heuristics, Covid Fatigue, and Secret Plans

In my last post, I shared three things we can still enjoy this holiday season, Covid-19 notwithstanding. Implicit in my post was the notion of a different kind of holiday—one marked by increased isolation and restraint, as experts ask us to forego togetherness as infection rates rise.

But what if this isn’t, in fact, a different kind of holiday for you and yours? What if you find yourself in a mildly dissociative state as you book plane tickets for a trip you’re telling yourself you desperately need (and plan to keep secret from the all-seeing eye of social media)? What if context clues suggest your friends’ holiday plans this year are suspiciously similar to their normal rituals—with a large group of family congregating indoors for a jovial meal? Why does it seem that many are more concerned with their tablescape and side-dish game than with the public-health crisis escalating around us? 

If this sounds familiar, then you may also be wondering—why? Why is this happening to you and those you love? After all, you’re mostly intelligent, discerning people who mere months ago said no to everything, even al fresco gatherings and drive-by birthdays. You were so perfect back then. How have you fallen so far?

Let me take a huge burden off your shoulders. You are not losing your mind and integrity. You have not been suddenly smitten by a great rod of ignorance and transformed into a dolt dismissive of science and reason. What you are is a human being who’s fallen prey to cognitive biases and faulty heuristics. Here’s how the mechanism works:

Our brains aren’t wired to maintain novel behavior for long periods of time. The only way we can successfully pull off the feat of sustaining new behavior is to integrate it into a new lifestyle. At the same time, there must be immediate rewards for this integration to occur. For example, it’s been proven that “dieting” isn’t an effective means of losing weight unless you both (1) make your diet a long-term habit and (2) see results. Without both of these factors, our brains tap out in the face of constant sacrifice. If it’s all “stick,” we’ll quit. We need the carrot, too.

So where does this leave you? First of all, you can reassure yourself that you’re not, as was posited earlier in the pandemic, a maniac or sociopath for having made plans that go against the epidemiologists’ advice. You do care about the first responders and all those who’ve suffered. You’re just a worn-down human living in a society of worn-down humans, and everyone has reached the frying point simultaneously. Moreover, and this is significant, recent vaccine news has undercut the notion of a new, irreversible “normal” in which the novel coronavirus reigns supreme. In fact, the best scientific minds of our species appear to have defeated the virus even as the rest of us are ignoring it to host Friendsgiving or visit our in-laws. 

None of this is to serve as an apologist rationalization for reckless behavior. It is, instead, an effort at compassionate mindfulness—and with this knowledge comes power. What you do with this information is, in the end, entirely up to you. You might elect to cancel your travel plans now that the veil is lifted. Or, if you can’t spring yourself from the very human cognitive distortion that led you to make naughty plans in the first place, how about this? 

You have the power to diligently wear a medical-grade mask. If you live in a temperate state, you can move your get-together outside. You can quarantine before interactions with people outside your normal cohort, and you can and indeed must get tested before whatever it is you’re planning to do, secretly or otherwise. 

Remember: the mitigation measures above are within your control. You have the power. With that, I wish you happiness, safety, and health this holiday season. 

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