A professor of mine at Princeton University once surveyed his classes and asked them how they would have responded to the unjust laws in Nazi Germany or the Jim Crow South. While history tells us that so few stood against these human rights violations, almost every student felt he would have volunteered to hide Jewish people in Nazi Germany or would have joined those marching for civil rights. I'd predict that most of these students would have also thought themselves one of the few to stand up for Japanese-Americans who were moved to internment camps during World War II.
Were these students all exceptional examples of independent thought and courage? Of course not. Rather, they exemplify two human realities: we have an amazing ability to overestimate our own courage and to believe we would think independently in the face of intense social pressure. If the vast majority were actually so wise and brave, so independent of mind and full of courage, how have there been so many human rights violations throughout history?
The reality is that most of us are not so independent-minded and courageous; rather, we are easily influenced by groupthink. Made famous by George Orwell in his novel 1984, groupthink is a psychological phenomenon that occurs within a group of people in which the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in an irrational and dysfunctional decision-making outcome. The desire for cohesiveness produces a tendency to agree at all costs, minimizing conflicts and resulting in decisions made without critical evaluation. Groupthink occurs within government decision-making and also in smaller corporate settings. Successful organizations try to avoid it because it prevents a full analysis of difficult issues and results in poor decisions. Social media add a new power to groupthink as mob pressure to conform to popular social media hashtags and promotions further alienates critical thought.
Today, we have a public health crisis, and the group demands that people stay at home for public safety. While telling people to stay home and watch TV doesn't rise anywhere near the level of genocide or slavery, groupthink happens not just in cases of extreme human rights violations. Groupthink also happens when well intentioned people get swept up by a certain idea of how to solve a problem.
Today, the group demands we stay away from our friends and families and neighbors, that we stay away from our jobs and work and lives, that we stay away from our schools and leisure activities. The group says people must not attend church, eat at restaurants, or walk in local parks or on local beaches. The group demands that those who are good citizens report their friends and neighbors who are breaking the lockdowns to police. People who question or protest these new rules are dangerous. The group says we have no choice. This is a pandemic, after all. Opinions that don't align with the group must be silenced. People asking critical questions are dangerous, their points are dismissed, and their moral compass questioned. After all, those people don't care about health care workers or the elderly.
But the group has forgotten that policy intentions can often produce bad results. In economics, more generous unemployment insurance leads to longer spells of unemployment. Implicit government guarantees to financial institutions lead to more risk-taking. In health care, low-tar cigarettes lead to more lung cancer, and low-calorie snacks make people fatter. Well meaning policies or medical advice can often lead to behavior changes and a result inferior to no policy at all.
A well meaning policy intervention that makes a situation worse is often referred to as the "cobra effect." In the time of British rule of colonial India, the British government wanted to reduce the number of cobras in Delhi. The government offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially, the program seemed successful — until people started to breed cobras for income. Soon Delhi had more cobras than when it started the intervention program.
The Chinese experienced a similar well intentioned policy disaster in 1958. The Four Pests Campaign attempted to remove mosquitoes, rodents, flies, and sparrows responsible for the transmission of disease. The policy of eliminating these pests led to infestations of other pests that had previously served as prey for those that were wiped out and resulted in a massive loss of crops, causing the Great Chinese Famine, which killed an estimated 15–45 million people — far more than the "Four Pests."
The expert models about COVID-19 have been wrong again and again. Initially estimating two million American deaths with social distancing measures in place, the IHME models have since been drastically revised twice to now estimate 60,000 American deaths. While COVID-19 is a serious virus that has already killed tens of thousands of Americans, data show that the overwhelming majority of people do not have a significant risk of dying from COVID-19. The recent Stanford antibody study estimates the fatality rate between 0.1 and 0.2 percent, 20 to 30 times lower than estimates that motivated lockdowns. The vast majority of these fatalities (99.2%) have an underlying illness. And based on a data analysis of the N.Y. area, young adults and children in normal health have almost no risk of any serious illness from COVID-19. Meanwhile, due to the COVID-19 response, many important preventative health care measures have been canceled, unemployment is soaring to Great Depression levels, and the Third World is at risk of massive famines — famines that, according to the U.N., could kill hundreds of millions of people.
When time passes and the hysteria recedes; when it becomes clear that fewer Americans died of COVID-19 than a variety of other addressable problems; and when an unprecedented number of Americans die deaths of despair, thanks in large part to the COVID-19 response, will this be our cobra-effect moment? And if it is, will we admit that we were swept up by the groupthink, pointing disapprovingly at dissenters? Or will we be like the students in my professor's class, still fooling ourselves into thinking we have the courage and independence of mind to stand up to a mob that we marched side by side with not so long ago?
It's not too late to break free and think about a different plan. Let's not be afraid of the dissenters. Let's not be afraid of the truth and where it might lead us.
Kellie J. Miller is a retired attorney, freelance writer, and mother of six children. She holds a B.A. in politics and a certificate in economics from Princeton University. She recently authored and illustrated two children's books.