Fear drives both rational and irrational behaviors. In times of chaos, we find differentiation between them increasingly difficult. For example, are consumers rational when they stock up on toilet paper and non-perishable foodstuffs? It depends on perspective. If information available to consumers suggests the supply chain will be disrupted for a very long time, perhaps stockpiling toilet paper and canned goods and dry foods like rice and beans and beef jerky is a rational response. But if that rational response is apt to result in supply shortages for some and oversupply for others, perhaps the response is actually irrational; selfish and detrimental to the greater good. Information availability is important, but so is the reliability of available information.
If one can reliably trust information made available, the decisions arising out of fear are more likely to be made in a rational way.
“The government says I need to stay at home for two weeks, but they say the supplies of toilet paper and food will not be curtailed during that time if consumers behave rationally and do not hoard, so I will buy only enough to last two weeks.”
But if available information is judged unreliable or, worse, purposefully inaccurate, decisions arising out of fear are more likely to anticipate the “real” situation one is apt to encounter and produce what may be an irrational response.
“The government says I need to stay at home for two weeks. They say the supplies of toilet paper and food will not be curtailed during that time if consumers behave rationally and do not hoard. But initially they said this situation was totally under control and not to worry. Now it’s obvious it was a big deal and there was plenty to worry about. I doubt I can trust them, either that this will require only two weeks or that there won’t be any supply chain disruptions. I better stockpile as much as I can possibly get my hands on. And I may need to buy a gun to protect myself from people trying to break in to steal my food when things get really bad.”
It is against the backdrop of being unable to rely on the validity of information that irrational fear erupts into full-blown panic. When dissonance exists between reassurance and evidence that reassurance is artificial, as in the current pandemic situation, irrational fear explodes into panic. For example, the Trump administration has been assuring the public for weeks that this “thing” will magically disappear and all will be right with the world. The president (lower case “p” used intentionally) has either lied intentionally (his modus operandi) or has been utterly clueless about the seriousness of the pandemic (also his modus operandi) or both. Evidence of the seriousness of the situation is all around us. Reports from Italy, Spain, China, etc., etc., indeed worldwide and within our own country, is at odds with all of his reassurances. The Peace Corps has taken the unprecedented action of suspending all its operational globally.
I wish I knew what the weeks and months ahead will bring. I don’t. I wish I knew when to believe information from the Federal government and when to dismiss it as either intentional lies or bumbling, accidental misinformation. In most cases, I don’t. In that context, I expect to be making what decisions I can based as much on gut instinct as on reliable fact. Knowing that irrational fear can lead to awful miscalculations, I will try to hold my fear in check.
I’ll try to use dark humor to get through this difficult time. I do not use dark humor, though, with my wife, as she does not find it amusing. So this is my outlet. I’ll reproduce below a slightly modified version of a Facebook post I stumbled upon this morning. The author apparently is Iam Myers, someone I do not know.
“If you’ve found yourself with a lack of childcare due to school closings, might I suggest letting the kids roam the streets unattended? Youth gangs are a crucial part of any proper dystopia, and with a head start your children will be well on their way to leading their own packs, getting the best scraps and the largest share of the pickpocketing. They’ll learn the important skills needed to thrive in the impending totalitarian hellscape.”
And with that, I’m off to enjoy the day.