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1 April 2020

Escaping Corona Mindtraps to Thrive in this New World

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

Swirling news alerts. Swiftly changing government recommendations. Photos of bodies piled in churches. The circumstances of our world right now are demanding that we move beyond our biological wiring and develop new capacities for a new time. Humans evolved in wild places where we were clawless and fangless creatures mostly slower than both our predators and our prey. To survive, we needed to make snap decisions, to narrow our focus, to run or fight or freeze, and to hide the complexity of the world from ourselves. In the forest, these were lifesaving capabilities and evolution meant that they became hard wired inside the human race. Now, as we face into this global pandemic, the way our minds shield us from complexity has become not lifesaving but dangerous, not a way to thrive, but a trap—a mindtrapwe fall into. Here are three key mindtraps that you might want to be aware of during this time of unprecedented complexity and unpredictability.

Rightness. We tend to believe we are right about most things most of the time, and we collect data that reinforces that sense of our rightness. This helps us take decisive action, which is often useful in a time of great threat. The problem is that our decisive action is based on a false premise. Certainty is really an emotion like irritation or anticipation or delight. We rely on this emotion as though it were a cognitive process–we believe that we are right when we feel right, but our belief and our reality are not connected at all. This is us being trapped by our sense of Rightness. We feel right, we pay attention only to data that reinforces our sense that we are right, and we dig deeper and deeper into the trap.

This is particularly dangerous now, as we are all faced with such significant threat—both to our livelihoods and our lives (or the lives of people we care about). When we come to a decision in complexity, we need to be willing to question our sense of Rightness. I notice in myself all the time a sense of what should or should not be done in this moment, which moves are helpful and which moves are crazy. I have opinions about everything from social distancing to how to get our economy running again, opinions that seem clearly Right to me. But I’m aware that there is no such thing as The Right Action in this moment; none of us know what is going to happen next. Because things are so complex, I can only judge afterwards whether my response (it’s wrong to be around other people but it is right to get a puppy) was really right or wrong. In this moment, complexity requires that we take action based on what we know right now and then be open to all the possible data that says we should revisit or shift the solution we’re trying.

To escape from this trap, notice in yourself when you feel Right about something. Remind yourself that this sense of certainty is likely to blind you from important data, and ask yourself, “How could I be wrong?” Seek diverse perspectives before you make a decision, and ask colleagues to help you look out for data that suggests you need to alter the course. I had a client who was struggling with how far to take the physical distancing idea in the weeks before the government took action for her. She had clear opinions about what was best based on what she was reading, but she understood that she might be falling into the Rightness mindtrap. She gathered a set of people with diverse perspectives and mapped it carefully, noticing what data they could collect in order to continually update their decision.

Closer to home, as my family and I were trying to decide about the puppy, we read a whole variety of opinions about whether dog fur can transmit coronavirus (most people say no), and then we knew we needed to make a decision knowing that those experts could turn out later to be wrong. Given the uncertainty, we are now careful to self-isolate at a higher level (like not leaving meals for our elderly downstairs neighbour for two weeks, unfortunately) in case we were wrong.

Simple Stories. For as long as we can figure, humans have told stories with a beginning, middle, and end, with heroes and villains. These stories shape our cultures and religions and family systems by drastically simplifying the world around us and giving us a shared narrative.  Stories connect dots into clear patterns that make us believe we have a sense of what’s coming next or that we know how a person might behave. We see this now in the pundits and various experts who have their own ways of crafting a simple story about what is coming towards us and what we should do about it. Using the pieces of data that most highlight their point (perhaps because they are also in the Rightness mindtrap), they link cause and effect tightly, give us heroes to admire and villains to despise. And because they are playing into one of our mindtraps, we are likely to believe their stories—and create simple stories about what that means for us now and in the future.

This is particularly dangerous now, because this virus is new and is causing a totally unprecedented response in every area of our world. All stories and predictions are based on one simplified model or another, and each of them leaves out countless exceptions to those rules in order to communicate with us in an article or blog post or quick news story. And none of them can tell what will happen when the weather shifts or when a life-saving medicine arrives. I have found myself repeating these predictions to family and friends as if they are Truth—pushing the Simple Stories farther into the world. I’m trying to remind myself that when I hear others with Simple Story about Covid19 and what is happening or will happen next, I can be clear that I’m falling into this mindtrap. The escape here? We need to let ourselves experience the confusion of this time. Let yourself make decisions even when you cannot know what is coming next. Know that you will not be able to put cause to effect or find simple heroes and villains no matter how much you crave them.*

Control. The third mindtrap that seems most threatening during these Covid times has its roots in the delightful experience of being able to control our own destinies. Humans love the feeling of being in control of things, of putting our hands on something to steer it into a better tomorrow. The problem is that in complexity, there is no one person or even one group who has a steering wheel—and wow are we seeing that right now! Never before have we been so aware of the interacting and interdependent pieces of our world and how random individuals—whom no one can control—can make an outsized difference in our lives. The more we notice that we are out of control, the more we are likely to want to put our hands on things to force a particular outcome—or shake our metaphorical fists on twitter. The problem is that as we try to control a complex situation, we tend to create perverse consequences that lead us in exactly the wrong direction.

The way to escape our control mindtrap is first to notice what sorts of things we have control over in these puzzling times and to relish that sense of control. I find that our self-isolation, our two-meter distancing, and our maniacal hand washing give my family a delightful sense of control over those things that are clearly inside our capacities. Secondly, we need to understand what is not inside our control and lean into experimenting and learning from the emerging situation. In this uncertain business environment, we cannot control our clients’ response to this disaster, but we can experiment with ideas and tools and blogs (like this one) and learn from peoples’ responses to see if we can stay helpful in a world where we cannot meet face to face.

Our natural impulses are very likely to lead us astray in this time of the coronavirus. Understanding this is in some ways like knowing how our old physical habits are also not helpful in a Covid19 world. Just as we have become excellent at washing our hands and at maintaining our distance, we need to become excellent at escaping these mindtraps.** I could be wrong, but I believe we can use this moment to intentionally evolve ourselves beyond our mindtraps and into new patterns and habits that will put us in a better place to handle complexity long after this pandemic is behind us.


* The exception of this rule looks to me to be the health workers who are putting their lives at risk to save those with the virus. I might be in a simple story here, but these days whenever I see a doctor or a nurse or an orderly or an EMT, I see a hero.

**There are two other mindtraps, too. I’ve written about them here and here and, with my colleague Zafer Achi, have a McKinsey Quarterly article on all of them but particularly the Ego/ Identity mindtrap here. Let me know if you’d like me to write more about how those get in our way particularly at this moment.  

Obviously the photo from today is my new puppy.

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