Monday, March 16, 2020

follow the money, follow the fear

It's a common bit of cynical wisdom that, if you want to understand the thought and behavior of the masses, you have to follow the money. A country's citizens might say they prioritize life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but when you follow the money, you discover that Americans spend a goodly chunk of their discretionary income on porn (a $4 billion industry) and the lottery (a staggering $72 billion per year). Well, I think I've stumbled upon a new maxim for understanding mass behavior: follow the fear.

In this way of thinking, following the fear means waiting for a massive crisis to occur, then watching how people behave. Part of that observation will undoubtedly mean following the money as well, but following the fear leads to some very interesting insights. Take the current COVID-19 pandemic: various US states are irrationally shutting down all sorts of major businesses in an effort to demotivate people from gathering and potentially spreading the Wuhan virus. Restaurants are either closing some or all days of the week, or they're switching to a takeout/delivery-only paradigm. Movie theaters and the transportation industry are taking major hits. Sports games and concerts are being canceled. While I've been joking about how the current situation makes for an introvert's paradise, the real lesson is what this behavior tells us about the things people really consider important. Pretty much everything that's being utterly canceled, for example, can be tossed aside as unimportant when the chips are down. Concerts? League sports? Mere cultural fluff—unimportant when survival is (believed to be) on the line. But what is important? Gathering at home, being with one's loved ones, avoiding strangers. The fluffy aspect of culture is what we enjoy when danger is absent: we enjoy those things because, in times of peace and tranquility, we can afford to enjoy them.

When I was living and studying in Switzerland during the 1989-90 academic year, I recall that one of my profs offered up a vague operational definition of culture: all human thought and activity beyond the basic needs of survival. Thinking in a Maslovian way, for example: we all need food, but once the basic need for food is met, we can concentrate on making a nice confit de canard or mousse au chocolat. But how specifically important are confit and mousse when you're starving in the desert and near collapse?

The presence of ambient peril and fear doesn't nullify all facets of culture, of course. If anything, widespread danger reinforces certain deeper aspects, e.g., hunkering down and reading some books, an act that becomes even more crucial once the power in your neighborhood goes out and you no longer have access to the internet and/or your TV. In this way, we see that even video games and TV are fluff, but given how colossally huge the entertainment industry is, it should be obvious that, when we follow the money during the good times, humans prioritize fluff. By extension, when we follow the fear during the bad times, humans don't. They return to what's deepest and most important.*

So, for the masses, fear automatically orients us toward the things that truly matter, and it's amazing to see how most of us seem to agree on what those things are. There will, of course, be those who are wired differently (or as I might say, badly) who will prioritize all the wrong things in a crisis. That's what natural selection and Darwin Awards are for. In the meantime, if you fancy yourself a student of human nature, you can never go far wrong by following the fear when the shit hits the fan.

ADDENDUM: seen on Instapundit:

Bad grammar: he should've said "How do...?" But his point is well taken.

*Some smartass is going to respond, "Important... like toilet paper?" Yes, actually: like toilet paper. Very little is more basic than the disposition of one's excretions. Shitting is an everyday reality that we just don't want to talk about, but it's absolutely fundamental to human existence and flourishing. Try stoppering your asshole for a week and see how you fare. I might not think the current panicked rush, in the US, to buy toilet paper is a rational thing, but on some level, it's definitely understandable through a follow-the-fear lens. My thesis is that, in a crisis, we return to what's important. If you think shitting isn't absolutely crucial, then let me feed you a gargantuan meal and chain you—standing—in my basement. You'll feel the truth of my words running warmly and thickly down your legs in less than a day.

No comments: