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In a world gone mad rationality is more important than ever

One of the inspirations for Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was the story of the Essex, a ship which in 1819 was struck by a whale, some way off the coast of South America. The crew clambered into lifeboats as their ship sank beneath the waves. They were far from land with meagre supplies and only the most basic navigational equipment. 

They had to decide the best course of action. The nearest land was the Marquesa islands, but the sailors had heard dreadful tales about cannibals there. Another option was Hawaii, but the captain was concerned about storms which would sink the boat. The last option involved sailing 1,500 miles south in the hope of catching the winds that would take them to safety on the coast off South America. 

The fear the sailors attended to most would determine their fate. Their choice was as informative as it was tragic. 

The fear of cannibals was greatest so they decided to take the longest route despite having scant provisions which they knew would not last. Half the men perished by the time they were picked up two months later. Ironically their fellow sailors had resorted to cannibalism.

The author Karen Thompson Walker uses the story of the Essex to show how fear drives many of the decisions we make. Had the men thought things through rather than acted impulsively, they would almost certainly have survived. There were no cannibals on the Marquesa islands after all.

What is happening in the world right now which makes this cautionary tale more relevant than ever. Traditional structures have broken down and we’re exposed to more chaos than usual. 

One of the most important things I keep in mind in my clinical practice as a psychologist is that when emotions are running high, the ability to reason and reflect goes out of the window. It is difficult to listen to a different point of view from our own.

Our feelings fuel our imagination and provide us with the stories that contribute to the rich tapestry of our lives. But when we are faced with existential threat and have to make life and death decisions we can come a cropper, as in the case of the crew of the Essex.  

In the wake of Covid-19, the world has gone mad and we are particularly vulnerable to impulsive, thoughtless action. When we are exposed to chaos and uncertainty, we are primed for a lack of reason. 

We have come a long way from those days of hoarding toilet paper and pasta but it showed us how easily we are carried away when fear predominates. 

In a time of crisis, this fear leads to paranoid thinking where we conjure up the worst possible outcome. In response to these disastrous imaginings we act in primitive, defensive ways. We do not want to hear alternative points of view. We become intolerant of difference. 

We have been confined to our homes for months, and now tentatively take our first steps into the world, wary of others and worried about our economic well-being. We are more vulnerable than ever. Our now fragile capacity for reflection teeters on the brink of a state of public irrationality. 

Science shows how rationality is easily lost. In one study researchers looked at how much experienced judges took account of the facts when granting prisoners parole.  They found that favourable decisions were much more likely after lunch and deteriorated steadily until their next meal. If post-prandial satisfaction determines the judgement of experienced decision makers, then what hope for the rest of us?

The so-called “affect heuristic” – the tendency for our decision making to be influenced by our emotions – has arguably never been as important. Research supports the story of the sailors of the Essex – the stronger and more graphic the imagery, the greater the impact on our judgement.

Even experienced mental health professionals, whose job is to assess risk, are prone to letting emotions dominate their decision making, leading to errors in judgement. The media play a vital role in the creation and generation of this. We live in a universe in which opinion becomes weightier than fact and we are intolerant of diversity in viewpoint. 

The causes of social movements such as the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations are clearly complex. Some of these are deep rooted, such as centuries-old structural inequality. Some are more recent: economic subjugation, racism, lack of political representation, institutional and actual violence.

Our leaders need to embrace equality but it is easy to pay lip service to the cause. There is a rush to satiate the appetite of the mob through virtue signalling. It is much more difficult to engage in thoughtful, measured action, which would have a lasting impact on people’s lives. 

The world is currently in a boat which has just been hit by a whale and we are scrambling for our life rafts. In such an environment, we are more likely to act than think. This can have grave consequences. When we are in the midst of a movement, we do not have the benefit of hindsight. The retrospectoscope is an instrument we have only after the event.

How do we harness the benefits of questioning the status quo whilst not tearing everything up? The tragedy of Covid-19 risks spawning tyranny. We need to be watchful of ourselves and our actions need to be genuinely considered – now more than ever.

  • Dr Stephen Blumenthal is Consultant Clinical Psychologist & Psychoanalyst at the Portman Clinic, Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust, and Queen Anne Street Practice.

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