To approach or to avoid: the new choice for us all

We're entering a fresh stage of the 'now normal' and that means adapting to increased uncertainty, writes Maureen Gaffney


So, it's to be a summer of hope after all. Last Friday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced an accelerated lifting of lockdown. With the infection rate brought under some kind of control, To approach or to avoid: the new choice for us all

there is an increasing urgency to bring the economy out of a coma and to manage the growing boredom and frustration at the prolonged disruption in our lives. So we are being invited to re-engage in life. And, to borrow a phrase from The Dead, our collective souls are swooning slowly at the prospect. 


Well, not so fast. What we are effectively being asked to do is re-engage while still avoiding risk. After nearly three months of confinement, the appetite for any kind of re-engagement will be huge, and so will the attendant risks because we are re-entering a world that is very different from the one we were used to.


Two of the most basic human drives are now going to come into play, and into opposition. We have an innate and strong instinct to approach and engage in life and an equally strong instinct to avoid what is potentially dangerous. And when it comes to pursuing our pleasures, these opposing tendencies often come into conflict. As we gradually return to work, business, socialising, and shopping for more than the basics, but with the threat of infection still present, our approach and avoidance drives will inevitably intersect and that inherent tension between them will intensify.


For governments faced with the existential threat of Covid-19 spreading uncontrollably through populations, imposing lockdown will turn out to have been the easy bit. When fear was in the ascendant, it wasn't hard to mobilise the avoidance drive and it lent itself to simple messaging: ''Stay home. Wash your hands. Maintain a two-metre social distance from others.'' In other words - inhibit the drive to approach and fully engage with life. Now, we have to re-mobilise that drive to approach and engage in life again, but not at full throttle, because we have to simultaneously behave as if in full avoidance mode. That is an altogether trickier proposition.


The Government can't issue a full-throated call to get back to normal because the old normal is gone, and the ''new normal'' is some way off. So all we have is the ''now normal'' - an indefinite period of unexpected changes and uncertainty. There is no simple messaging about how to manage that. Now, it's make-it-up-as-you-go time and that will carry a whole other set of stresses.


Emerging from lockdown will be a bit like coming off a strict diet. There will be an almost overwhelming temptation to binge, with the certain knowledge that this will be followed by the inevitable tsunami of guilt and anxiety about the consequences. So, instead, we will all have to learn to change our old habits, learn new ones, and put good decision-making at the centre of our lives.


We will have to add a new coping strategy to our repertoire - a kind of pro-active coping that will involve anticipating and detecting likely threats to our safety, and acting to prevent or mute their impact. This will require a steady vigilance, while simultaneously developing a certain tolerance for ambiguity so that we can get on with our lives.


Our lives will now be full of micro-decisions as to what's safe and what constitutes risk. We will be vigilant in a new way, screening the environment for cues that may signal safety or danger, and making that judgment will be nowhere near as simple as eye-balling a two-metre span. We will find ourselves on high alert, screening the environment for any cues to possible dangers, and paying more attention to any sense of unease. We will find ourselves suddenly conflicted, our desire to re-engage colliding with our desire to avoid danger and stay safe.


We will become more sensitised to internal cues, paying more attention to any feeling of unease: What does this mean? And should I be worried about it? And it will be hard to test those feelings against reality, because in this uncertain environment of the ''now normal'' there are few norms to guide us, so the conflict between desire and fear is likely to be resolved in favour of fear. We will be frustrated by the behaviour of others that we interpret as unsafe, selfish, or intrusive, and it will take a while to develop new norms as to what's acceptable and ''normal''.


And much as we long for the freedom to make our own choices and decisions, making all those micro-decisions will use up a great deal of the cognitive and emotional resources required to resist the temptation to do something risky, to suppress feelings of frustration, to do concentrated work and the quality thinking needed to negotiate this complex ''now normal'' world.


These are all the reasons why for employers and business owners, psychological acuity is going to be at least as important as business acumen. They will need to figure out what cues in their particular environments, physical and psychological, are likely to be read as safe or risky. For example, inattentiveness or indifference, normally experienced as just an irritant, may now assume a different significance. Doing that psychological audit will be as important as the physical changes they are making in their premises.


But what will most come to our aid in restoring some semblance of normality is the huge variability in how strong or weak the approach drive is. The world will now divide into ''approachers'' and ''avoiders''.


Some people are disposed to actively engage with life even under conditions of risk, buoyed by enthusiasm and excitement, and their belief that behaviour is highly malleable.

''Avoiders'' do the opposite, held back by caution, and averse to changing course unless evidence of low risk is strong. Both pay highly selective attention to any information that supports their own strategy. And the world is divided pretty equally between the two tribes.

All attention will be on the ''approachers''. Like the Marines, they will be the first to venture into what may be unsafe territory, to test the waters in the ''now normal'', and if the reports coming back paint a reassuring picture of the safety precautions in place, and there is no new spike in infection, that will embolden others to follow, and gradually the trickle of returners will turn into a steady flow, and at a particular juncture, there will be a tipping point.

This is the moment when social disapproval will focus more on being seen as ridiculously cautious. And it is at this tipping point that the norm changes - the whole process becomes less individual and more social. All going well, the wisdom of crowds takes over - whereby each person making their own individual decisions, based on their local knowledge, somehow aggregates into good collective decisions about how to behave.


All of those changes will largely be a bottom-up phenomenon. So does the Government have a role? Well, yes, because we rely on it to keep updating and sharing the information on what is likely to be an evolving and local dynamic. Because it's only in that kind of context we can keep making those good decisions. We have temporarily whacked the mole, but until we have an effective treatment, another molehill will almost inevitably appear.

Not to be too Churchillian about it, this is just the end of the beginning of the struggle against Covid-19. We are still in a dangerous dance with that wily virus.


Originally published in the Sunday Independent



Posted: 07 June 2021