The year 2020 has hardly been a joyride so far. With every passing month, it seems that we’re advancing to a more difficult level in a cruel, never-ending game. Kicking things off with veiled threats of World War III, we slowly but surely eased into a pandemic, just in time to witness – and, hopefully, participate in – an incredible wave of protests against systemic racism. There was talk about giant killer hornets in the United States at some point, but they barely made the news with such tough competition. Of course, all of that comes on the background of a looming environmental crisis, ready to finish us off. However, it’s one thing to know about the stuff that’s going on, and a completely different thing to feel actively threatened by it. As such, some of us might be more relaxed than others with regard to current events. If you’re one of those people, this article is not an excuse for you, but rather an explanation – and you have evolution to thank for that.
Surviving the Predators
Back when we used to be cave people, our species had much more obvious dangers to worry about. You probably wouldn’t care too much if the weather feels slightly warmer or if some forest on another continent is catching fire – arguably, you also wouldn’t know about them given the communication means available to you at the time. Realistically speaking, you would have been more concerned to avoid being stomped to death by a mammoth or finding yourself in between the terrifying jaws of a sabre-toothed cat. As with other animals constantly facing the assault of predators, we have developed a keen sense of immediate danger. We care when something happens only in the circumstances that it directly affects us. Any threat beyond that and we basically turn a blind eye.
By evolutionary necessity, humans have drastically limited their awareness. This phenomenon has been described by Daniel Gilbert, a professor of social psychology at Harvard University, through what he calls the four Is of threat perception: intention, immorality, imminence and instantaneity. In order for an action to be perceived as dangerous, a majority of these four requirements have to be met. Let’s take some of the world’s problems and see how well these criteria fit. The COVID-19 pandemic is perceived by many as an emergency due to the media treatment it has received. Without public figures and experts labelling this crisis as a “fight against the virus”, we wouldn’t have had an enemy to struggle against. In short, there would have been no intention on the side of the virus. There’s also the problem of imminence and instantaneity. A pandemic is a long-term problem that aggravates over a significant period of time. It is not by any chance a sudden and short-term situation that we humans can quickly interpret as a threat and take care of. The last two criteria are, in fact, the most problematic ones of the bunch. Whilst we have the ability to render a threat intentional and immoral through shaping the narrative around it, there is little that can be done with regard to imminence and instantaneity. Think of climate change. Whilst it is hard to associate intention or immorality with this threat, it is much harder to perceive it as an immediate, salient event. Changes resulting from the global warming process are more subtle than we are adapted to sense in the short-term. It is the long-term problems that are truly devastating for us and, unfortunately, the ones we are less likely to perceive and understand.
Socialising in the Cave
Let’s go back to the cave for a second and, for the sake of the argument, let’s assume we have detected a non-immediate threat – an incoming ice age. We enter the cave and we’re trying to warn all members of our community about the impending doom. We go to our family, the tribe elder, everyone. In spite of our best intentions, chances are our pleas will be met with laughter or disdain. Have you ever seen those people in movies, with signs reading “The world is ending!”, that are categorised by the passers-by as lunatics? Well, in the context of the cave, we’re the lunatics now.
When it comes to socialising, especially in the cave with no fact-checking authorities around, truth is hardly the most important determinant. It is perception and belief that shapes the accepted, common truth. Humans have a tendency of rejecting conflicting information, especially when it comes from the outliers of society. In the process of evolution, when survival is the greatest goal, the ones who accept the comfortable truth of their community have an edge. They are the ones who are not cast away from the cave, the ones who get to share resources, the ones who get to live another day. This behaviour has propagated to modern times. You can observe this phenomenon on your social media or within your circle of friends. Whenever popular assumptions are challenged, the group is quick to react and dismiss the new competing claims. The resulting echo chamber only accentuates the prevailing opinion, allowing for false truths and, by extension, serious danger. Nowadays, instead of being banished, you’re just getting blocked on Instagram.
The First of Many Obstacles
Noticing the threat, however, is just the first step. From acknowledging danger to specifically taking action against it, a series of other obstacles occur. Think about how different individuals can interpret the same problem resulting in divergent outcomes. With regard to climate change, for instance, one could acknowledge the danger yet refuse to contribute against it due to self-interest, especially if the contribution would affect their lifestyle. Others, namely free riders, choose to rely on the majority, hoping that there will be enough people in the world to take action in their stead. There are also the ones who believe that the world is just as should be, either due to cultural or religious reasons, and that their action cannot intervene in the grand scheme of things. Bottom line, the motivations for ignoring real, non-obvious problems are numerous and accessible. Whether humanity will find within itself the sense and sensibility to overcome them, it is a matter of further discussion.