When Bad News is Good News (Newsletter)

  • Quick announcement: I’ll be doing a live Q&A with Dillon Holmes over at Well Your World this coming Thursday (March 26) at 4pm Pacific. Email me any questions you have or join us live—anything goes. We’ll talk pandemics, personalities, how to make healthy and cheap apocalypse food, and whatever else people want to discuss! You can tune in here

As more and higher quality data comes in on the actual mortality rate of Covid-19, it is beginning to look a lot less dire than it did at first. Very nasty, to be sure. But terrifying and indiscriminate it is not. It is not, however, a simple thing to walk back a big reaction to a crisis, once set in motion. It can take almost superhuman humility to do so. And as long as social and economic decisions proceed according to incorrect (or incorrectly interpreted) information, those decisions are distorted, and they can have serious unintended consequences. In some cases, the hubris of failing to admit and correct for an overreaction could very well be worse than the hubris of failing to act on the threat at all.

Let me be very clear, as I can anticipate already all the ways this will be misunderstood—I’m not saying Covid-19 is “no big deal” or that we should ignore shelter in place advisories or that some significant reduction of social contact to flatten the curve isn’t a very excellent idea. What I want to discuss, rather, is how ancient ancestral algorithms compel us to grab social status when we have an opportunity to warn others of impending disaster. And once we have that status, it’s very hard to let go of it—even in the face of mounting contradicting evidence. And it’s even harder to let go of it when existential anxiety is “on brand” with your particular personality and its ideal display to others. This doesn’t make anyone a bad person for falling into the alluring trap of doom entrepreneurship. All it means is that our susceptibility as a species to that trap warrants a teeny tiny bit of vigilance and a great deal of intellectual honesty.

To review: we are Stone Age animals. We are fundamentally unchanged, physically or mentally, from the end of the Stone Age—we haven’t evolved past the optimal adaptations to that particular environment. And we know what that environment looked like: we lived in small, tight-knit villages of, at most, a few hundred people. Everyone was all kinds of up in everyone else’s business. From cradle to grave, our place in the social hierarchy of the village was relatively stable. We knew that we belonged, that we were protected, and what was expected of us—and that if we did not do what was expected of us, we risked exile or worse. 

There weren’t a lot of opportunities to advance your social standing in a Stone Age village. It was essentially a caste system built around looks and ability. (Kind of like high school.) The place was pretty strict and socially inflexible. But there were a couple of things you could do. You could somehow manage to persuade a hottie way outside your league to sleep with you. You could dazzle the village campfire with storytelling or dancing. You could wow everyone with a feat of courage or strength at war or in a hunt. The advantages conferred by such advancements in social standing were a BIG DEAL. They meant more resources for you and your family, improved mating opportunities, and priority boarding privileges when the village had to pick up and flee from marauding barbarians. Securing a little extra status was definitely worth it if and when it was available, which is why we remain highly motivated to pursue that status—in pretty much exactly the same ways—in the modern environment.

By far, however, the best and most egalitarian way to pick up some status in a Stone Age village was to improve everyone’s collective survival odds by being the bearer of new and important information. This was often some new technique to more efficiently solve an existing problem—a slight improvement to a fish wheel that made a big difference in yield and therefore many more calories per citizen, or the discovery of a new local herb with antibiotic properties that resulted in longer lives and more babymaking per capita. Innovation and better information of this sort—essentially good news—translated into major social accolades and therefore more village resources, just as it continues to do so today. That’s why you can’t stop yourself from trying to convince everyone you know to go plant-based after you’ve done so. Your critical life-saving information is just too useful not to relentlessly inflict on other people. For their own good, of course.

But important informational advantages could—and often did—also come in the form of BAD news, such as an advance warning. An otherwise unremarkable member of the village who had a prophetic dream about a natural disaster, or who heard from nearby hunters that eating fish when the water was red would make you sick, or who Paul Revere-d it back home in time to save everyone from an advancing hostile invasion—those bearers of bad news stood to reap major social advantages as well. 

Indeed, when it comes to bad news, from a strategic game-theoretic perspective, it’s almost always the right thing to do to err on the side of the worst-case scenario. The costs of a false alarm are relatively low compared to the potential benefit of being able to tell the village “I told you so.” To be sure, the costs of a false alarm are not zero—too many false alarms (the boy who cried wolf) undermine credibility, which is more costly than having done nothing. But the benefit of remaining silent when there is a chance of genuine disaster actually is zero. Upshot being: if you think there’s a chance, even a small one, it’s probably better, all things equal, to sound the alarm. And the higher the perceived chance, the better the value proposition of sounding the alarm. (To a point. At some inflection when there’s near-universal agreement on an outcome, the strategy flips and the greatest possible advantage goes to the contrarian—i.e., the game theoretic logic of a good conspiracy theory. But I digress. We can discuss flat earthers another time.)

All of this is to say: it certainly pays to be the bearer of good news. But it can also pay—a lot—to be the bearer of bad news. And as I wrote last week, if your personality is the type that seeks to display itself through such signals, the urge to sound the alarm could likely prove irresistible. Relatively high levels of conscientiousness, introversion, and/or some degree of emotional volatility all lend themselves alone and together to panicky prognostication as a preferred adaptive strategy. No shame. No judgment. We all have these circuits to some degree, because the strategy was so successful evolutionarily. Some of us just have more than others. #bellcurvelife.

But social media has lowered the cost of false alarms. A false alarm could get you stoned or banished in the Stone Age. Now it just gets you the angry face reaction emoji. And that’s a problem, because it means more and more people feel incentivized to peddle doom and gloom. And then when you add to that the element of a public declaration—you get up on the village soapbox that is your Twitter feed and effectively stake your reputation on the worst case scenario—the potential hit to your status if you reverse your position is unthinkably high. “Hey guys lol my bad I totes overreacted” just doesn’t have the same kind of status ring as “I TRIED TO WARN YOU, YOU FOOLS.” The paradoxically “correct” thing to do, according to the evolutionary logic that masquerades as free will, is to double down and hope for the worst. 

There’s nothing WRONG with seeking status, not through bad news or anything else. You couldn’t stop seeking status even if you wanted to, because turning your back on a strategy that is likely to give you an advantage over the competition would defeat the entire purpose of your very existence. The urge to shout “I know something you don’t about something very important and relevant to your survival and I’m going to be the first to tell you!” is as deeply-rooted as your highly-adapted evolutionary urge to seek out calorie-dense food like pizza or organic almond butter cups before going to all the trouble of gnawing on something relatively unexciting like raw kale or a plain potato. Ancestrally speaking, sounding the alarm ahead of a disaster usually had a pretty good shot at giving you a very significant advantage. And evolution proceeds one tiny advantage at a time. 

In other words, it’s not your fault that your finger is hovering over the retweet button and you feel a little surge of first-mover adrenaline when something pops up in your feed that’s particularly alarmist. It’s not you, it’s your genes. But that’s why Dr. Lisle and I call our podcast “Beat Your Genes.” Just because it’s in your nature to do something doesn’t make it a good idea. 

P.S. This is an excellent summary of the current state of the Covid-19 data from a Stanford professor of medicine and statistics. We also discussed many of the same findings and some of these themes on the podcast last week, which you can listen to here