Are We Like Army Ants?

If you have noticed army ants will at times walk in circles until they die. The workers navigate by smelling the trails of workers in front of them, while laying a scent for others to follow. If for some reason these trails loop back on themselves, the ants are trapped. They become a think, swirling mass of bodies that look like a hurricane as viewed from space. They march hopelessly until they are felled by exhaustion or dehydration. The ants can sense no picture bigger than what is ahead. They have no coordinating force to lead them to safety. Therefore, they find themselves imprisoned by a wall of their own instincts. This concept is known as the death spiral. I can think of no better metaphor for the United States of America's response to the COVID-19 virus.

Many Americans trusted intuition to guide them through this disaster. They grabbed onto whatever solution was most prominent at the moment, and moved from one hope to the next. They saw the actions that individuals were taking, and blamed and shamed their friends. They lapsed into magical thinking, and somehow believed that the world would return to what is normal within months. Operating along these impulses was simpler than moving through a web of solutions, staring down broken systems, and accepting that the pandemic would rage for at least a year.

The aforementioned errors are not egregious lies or conspiracy theories, but are still dangerous. They manifest again and again, distorting the debate around whether to stay at home, wear masks, or open schools and businesses. The errors prevented citizens from comprehending the scope of the crisis and pushed leaders toward bad policies. Instead of overriding misleading intuitions with calm and considered communication, these leaders intensified them. The country is now trapped in an intuition nightmare. Like the spiraling ants, Americans are boxed in by their own unhelpful instincts, which  has lead them round and round in self-destructive circles.

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