A Failure of Fear: Why Certain Nations Flunked the COVID-19 Threat Test

An important lesson from the pandemic comes from a surprising source: the dodo, a flightless bird that went extinct four centuries ago. Living free from mammalian predators, the species evolved over millions of years on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean to become large, flightless, and fearless. But when humans started washing ashore in 1598 in the form of Dutch sailors, the dodo’s days were numbered. Within only about sixty years, the dodo was extinct, hunted out of existence by humans and the invasive species they brought with them.

The dodo is often cited as a vivid example of the havoc we humans wreak on the natural environment. But the bird is also a cautionary tale for us as a species—a warning put in sharp relief by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Evolutionary biologists have noted that hereditary traits developed in a particular environment can become a liability when the environment changes—they call it an evolutionary mismatch. The dodo’s lack of fear served it well when Mauritius was a peaceful island oasis, but these qualities proved devastating once humans showed up.

Like the dodo, certain nations—such as the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom—also have historically had the luxury of developing few defenses against outside threats. In our research, we have found that cultures that have faced relatively few chronic challenges to their survival, such as invasions, disease outbreaks, and natural disasters, have evolved into “loose” cultures—ones where social norms and rules are fairly lax, and creativity and individual liberties are prized.

Hereditary traits developed in a particular environment can become a liability when the environment changes—an evolutionary mismatch.

Having relatively low levels of threat also feeds into our characteristic optimism. Hundreds of years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville waxed poetic about Americans’ rose-colored glasses. By comparison, cultures that were repeatedly attacked by enemies or faced frequent environmental catastrophes were forced to mobilize, coordinate, and tighten, and temper their optimism. These cultures, including South Korea, Japan, and Singapore, evolved to have stricter rules, lower tolerance of rule-breakers, and developed an instinct that when there is threat, coordination and sacrifice are valued cultural traits. Of course, all countries have experienced threat, but some have faced it chronically—to a degree that required an evolved tightening response.

What happens when loose nations are struck by an unexpected and potentially devastating threat, such as a hurricane, a terrorist attack, or a pandemic? Typically, as we saw in the United States following 9/11, they tighten up: citizens band together to cope with the problem together, rules become stricter, and we sacrifice some freedom for constraint, at least temporarily. By tightening up, nations are able to ride out the crisis in the hope of returning to their freewheeling ways.

But this tightening instinct was short-circuited in many loose nations during COVID-19. Taking off my rose-colored glasses, back in March 2020, I was getting concerned about the liability of looseness during a global pandemic, a worry I wrote about in an op-ed for the Boston Globe. Our psychology–computer science team then started to develop some evolutionary game theory models of culture and responses to threat. The computer simulation results were telling: loose cultures were taking much longer to cooperate under increasing threat and had more deaths. Tight cultures, by cooperating fast, were able reduce the threat.

Then the COVID-19 data started to come in. By the late fall 2020, in a paper comparing 57 countries and published in the Lancet Planetary Health, we found that nations with high levels of cultural looseness faced more than five times the cases and eight times the deaths of nations with high levels of cultural tightness. These patterns were found even when factoring in countries’ wealth, inequality, population density, age, climate, government stringency, and authoritarianism, among other factors. Astonishingly, our research shows that people in loose cultures had far less fear of the COVID-19 virus throughout 2020, even as cases skyrocketed. In tight nations, 70 percent of people were very scared of catching the virus. In loose cultures, only 49 percent were. During a devastating global pandemic, this is a clear cultural evolutionary mismatch.

We found that nations with high levels of cultural looseness faced more than five times the cases and eight times the deaths of nations with high levels of cultural tightness.

Reality never bit in loose-culture populations because the threat signal got all mixed up. Cherishing our permissive traits, some people in looser cultures were more fearful of wearing masks and social distancing than the virus. The threat signal also got hijacked by poor leadership, which failed to adequately convey that the threat was dire. “Just say calm. It will go away,” U.S. president Donald Trump said wishfully on March 10, 2020. As the death toll climbed to staggering levels in the United States, the national response was desultory and chaotic, with states largely left on their own to develop a tight response. Those Americans who supported Trump felt even more empowered to ignore the warning signs (an ironic twist, once you consider that conservatives, who are usually threat sensitive, were tightly following their leader more than their fear instincts). Similarly, British prime minister Boris Johnson boasted about shaking hands with COVID-19 patients and otherwise made light of the crisis. Britons got the message: only one in ten citizens who were exposed to a confirmed COVID-19 carrier followed orders to quarantine for two weeks, King’s College London found.

Though loose nations of course didn’t go the way of the dodo bird, our reluctance to accept tightening measures in the face of disaster puts us, our families, and our communities at risk. As the virus begins to enter yet another phase, we need to pause and reflect on how we might prepare for the future threats, viral and otherwise, that are inevitably headed our way. The key will be to learn to listen to threat signals rather than ignoring them or hoping the problem magically goes away—to pivot from our prized loose cultural traits to ones that are dormant and better matched to collective threat. Above all, this means we need to have tight-loose ambidexterity.

How can we best accomplish this in future threats? First, given that people respond quickly to threats that are vivid and concrete, we need to develop ways to help people understand the dangers of an abstract germ in future pandemics.

The key will be to pivot from our prized loose cultural traits to ones that are dormant and better matched to collective threat.

Second, it’s important for us to stress the time-limited nature of strict rules. A nation of rule-breakers can get on board with tighter procedures if we know there’s an end in sight. As a general rule, the faster we tighten, the faster we’ll reduce the threat, and the faster we’ll restore freedom. Even loose cultures like New Zealand—through great leadership and citizens who were willing to temporarily tighten—were able to limit cases and deaths and open up much sooner than nations where citizens flouted such common-sense measures. The key is that tightening is temporary.

Third, we need to restore trust in our public-health authorities. After years of being undermined, scientists and health organizations have to win back the confidence of the American people. The fastest way back is to think small and cultivate trust in local leaders, whether they are primary-care doctors, priests, or even barbers. The CDC and other health authorities will get the most traction by also developing a bottom-up strategy which may be even more effective in loose cultures that resist top-down control.

Fourth, we need to understand that we’re all in this together. We loose nations prize rule-breaking, but as 9/11 showed, we are capable of tightening and uniting during a crisis. The partisan divisiveness in the United States worked against coordination and left us largely defenseless against the pandemic. To avoid another devastating evolutionary mismatch, we need to be able to put our differences aside and embrace our shared humanity.