The Endemic Mindset

34+


There really aren’t any more just-the-flu-ers these days.

OK, sure, there are still some solitary specimens sticking to their guns, so please don’t send me screenshots of your crazy uncle’s Facebook feed. But by and large, over the last several months the just-the-flu meme has faded, having evolved into another species that is far more well-adapted to our environment. Far more resilient.

The ecological niche in our politics previously filled by the just-the-flu meme has been all but conquered by virus-gonna-virus.

So what is virus-gonna-virus? It is a versatile memetic construction built from some combination of one or more ideas. What are those ideas? That everything we’re doing to combat COVID-19 is counterproductive safety porn. That nothing we could have done really would have changed anything about the virus’s spread. That every country is going to end up in the same place. That most of the public discussion promoted in the news is designed to support the institution of new social controls and disproportionate criticism of politicians the media do not like.

Virus-gonna-virus is a well-adapted meme because it provides a valuable ego integrity service to its host. Namely, it provides a smooth transition for those who truly believed and publicly expressed a belief that COVID-19 was a plandemic, a fake pandemic or just the flu. It allows those people to ignore that reality has proven their beliefs to be incorrect. Indeed, it permits them a way to say – if still speciously – that their being proven wrong was better than everyone else’s being proven correct. You know, since we’d still be better off if we hadn’t fussed with masks or distancing or anything else to prevent the spread at all. Virus gonna virus.

Virus-gonna-virus is a resilient meme because it is built on a few kernels of genuine truth: (1) that a critical mass of cases of a very contagious coronavirus REALLY IS difficult to stop, (2) that a lot of the things governments are doing, like some of the kneejerk shutdown-everything reactions that have been happening since April, REALLY ARE counterproductive safety porn and (3) that some of the politicians who favor counterproductive and largely ineffective restrictions on liberty REALLY DO have other political and personal objectives <tilting head demonstratively in the direction of Cuomo>.

Virus-gonna-virus is also indicative of a endemic mindset, a framework of thinking that has implications for both financial and political markets.


In 1967, Marty Seligman and Steven Maier undertook a now-famous set of experiments at the University of Pennsylvania. These experiments separated a collection of dogs into three groups. The first group was placed into a harness for some time and then released. The second and third groups were placed into connected harnesses. From time to time, an electric shock was applied that simultaneously affected both the second and the third groups of dogs. The second group was placed near a lever which deactivated the shock. The third group was placed near a lever which didn’t do anything. When the second group hit the lever, the electricity would stop for both. The third group of dogs was powerless to do anything about the shock.

Seligman and Maier then began a second stage of the experiment with the same groups of dogs. They created a box with a short partition between two sections, one of which was subject to shocks and one of which wasn’t. They then measured whether there was a difference between the behaviors of the groups. There was. The dogs from the first two groups, which either had not encountered the shock in the first box or which came to believe they had control over it, generally hopped right over the partition to brief, sweet safety from the designs of ever-so-mildly sadistic psychology professors. But what about the third group, having been subject to the arbitrary whims of fate in the first box, shocked with no control over when it would begin or when it would end? What did they do in the partitioned box?

They sat and they whimpered.


By Rose M. Spielman, PhD – Psychology: OpenStax, p. 519, Fig 14.22, CC BY 4.0

You are probably familiar with some telling or retelling of this experiment or its follow-on experiments involving human subjects. You are also probably familiar with the term coined to describe the effect revealed by those experiments: learned helplessness.

The endemic mindset is the world of abstractions we see under the influence of learned helplessness.

There are only so many days in which death or hospitalization counts may still function as information for the human mind. There are only so many descriptions, images or videos of hospitals in the early stages of being overwhelmed which will be able to change anyone’s perspective. There is a point of diminishing informational returns from another story about a lost small business, or a struggling low income family.

In the real world, the difference between 1,500 deaths in a day and 1,000 is staggering, real and personal. To the endemic mindset, they are functionally identical. In the real world, the difference between a 60% drop in revenue and a 30% drop in revenue is breathtaking. To the endemic mindset, they are functionally identical. In the real world, the difference between being out of work for 9 months and being out of work for 4 months may be nearly existential. But if we are not the one affected, to the endemic mindset, they are functionally identical.

In short, the endemic mindset is one in which our default expectation is that our world has become permanently worse in a way that we are helpless to do anything about.


I don’t think I miss the mark by saying that ALL of us are suffering from this just a little bit.

At some point in the last several months, did it start to feel like checking in every few days with elderly neighbors wasn’t really helping? Did it feel like extraordinary support of waitstaff, servers and owners of local businesses demanded much of you and still couldn’t keep them from going under? Did your capacity to give to local food security charities give way to a recognition that the need never went away? Are you a financial advisor or professional being asked for good advice or wisdom about how to navigate “these challenging times”, and feeling like you ran out of both months ago? Are you a parent forced into remote learning supervision, feeling like you’ve botched it and waiting out the clock to give you a reprieve?

Does the choice between standing outside in the cold, six feet apart, mask obscuring any sign of warmth or human emotion, or staying at home for Thanksgiving with the same people you’ve seen day in and day out for 8 months make you want to scream?

In your heart of hearts, do all of those things make it a little bit easier to believe that there’s just maybe nothing we can do that’s really going to take this shock away? That maybe we live our lives and weather all of this as best we can?

If you are feeling that a bit – I feel that pull from time to time, too, if it helps – it doesn’t make you bad. It makes you human.

But here’s the thing: the conclusions from the Seligman-Maier experiments weren’t all dire. Just as we can learn helplessness, we can also unlearn it. All it took in the experiments was a researcher picking up the arms and legs of each subject and placing them over the partition. Sometimes they had to do it twice. That’s it.

The hopeful news of a vaccine in 2021 is a great opportunity for all of us to do the same. With ourselves. With our families. With our friends and neighbors. Eight months ago, the reason we might accept some measure of personal inconvenience and expense was to “buy time.” But the time we were buying was unbounded. With a long enough time horizon, the belief that we would essentially all contract COVID-19 at some point becomes extraordinarily probable. What we were buying, of course, was a spreading out of that risk over enough time to permit effective and improved treatment. That ain’t nothing, but it also isn’t enough to stop the inevitable growth of an endemic mindset.

The more something looks like a new reality, the more likely we are to treat it like a new reality.

Today, however, we can tell a different story. IF – and despite a roaring market and glowing headlines it remains a very big IF – the vaccines from Pfizer and/or Moderna prove effective, then actions you take today don’t just delay the inevitable for the lives and livelihoods of your neighbors. They may change those outcomes. Permanently. If that isn’t enough to motivate us to pull one another’s legs over the partition, to reinvigorate our own and our community’s commitment to small, personally sacrificial action for our neighbors, I don’t know that anything will.

What actions?

Same as they ever were:

Wear a mask.

Social distance.

Buy local.

Help your neighbor.

Don’t be a jerk.

34+

To learn more about Epsilon Theory and be notified when we release new content sign up here. You’ll receive an email every week and your information will never be shared with anyone else.

Notify of
38 Comments
oldest
newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Desperate_Yuppie
6 months ago

The death rate in my county is 5%. 5%. Mask wearing is required, as is distancing. Most people have been pretty good. But despite this our rates are abysmal. Why? Combine a lousy hospital system with an older, much more unhealthy population and you get death printer go brrr. I’ve taken this thing seriously since January. I still do. I’m not fear-based, so I know a lot of what we’re doing (or at least a lot of what we did early on) is and was safety porn. I wish I could care more, but I cannot. My emotional capital has been drained. I’ve done my part. I’ll continue to do my part. But when a coworker decides to jet off to two locations, both of which have almost no real rules, then comes back positive a week later I’m Seacrest out. Tomorrow I start doing something I never wanted to do: working from home. F*ck it, if I’m surrounded by imbeciles then I’ll stay home and be the responsible one.

That’s where I am. My wife and I will continue helping our older neighbor with her leaf removal, I’ll keep sending checks to the local food bank, but I’m done caring about the numbers. I don’t want to be done, but I’m failing to find the strength to do it. So this note hits home.

Daniel Thomason
6 months ago

I fear that this is what breaks us – the slow erosion of public spiritedness by watching people around you take more and more liberties. I’ve had the same thing here, to the letter: watching a colleague take their planned international trip the week after I cancelled mine out of desire to avoid being a contagion vector; having to continue telling my friends that no, I can’t to come to their birthday party to which dozens of others are invited; taking my carefully socially-distanced midday walk while watching tightly-clustered groups of young people laughing and playing within inches of one another.

It’s not the lacklustre official response that breaks us. It’s looking to our left and right and seeing those close to us starting to defect that drives us into a tragedy of the commons equilibrium.

Nuno Borges
6 months ago

aah, the 3rd stage of Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief: Depression & Helplessness. Transitions between mindsets seem to follow familiar patterns. Although some aspect of human emotion is emergent and memetic, it seems that evolutionary design predisposes us to learned helplessness. Will will bargain our way out of helplessness, because unlike dogs, our free will can interrupt conditioning with greater reliability. What i worry most about, is the nature of this ‘bargain’. All systems seek balance, but in a near infinite set of ‘types’ of autopoietic balance, many will have a negative long-term impact on socio-cultural development. If governments create a new set of constraints that, through policy, force vaccinations, create an identity passport, dictate the manifestation of social norms within private residences, or any other form of Orwellian control. Are we to be happy with the ‘bargain’?

Victor K
6 months ago

The antidote to the endemic mindset is the magic bullet, in this case the Vaccine – with a capital V. In your terms, after advance work by Gates et al., the meme of the Vaccine was drummed into us relentlessly, first by Fauci and Birx, and then by Trump and Biden, and now more recently by Pfizer and Moderna. CNBC banners the 90+% and 94+% effectiveness of the respective Vaccines and then compares them to vaccine effectiveness for smallpox, measles, and polio. The latter benchmarks were for actual prevention of the disease. The Pfizer and Moderna benchmarks are reportedly for mild disease. Hopefully, prevention of mild Covid19 disease is highly correlated with prevention of all Covid19 disease, and the Vaccine is not a just-like-the-flu vaccine but with a much more effective marketing strategy. At least we’ve made some progress; time will tell; and now back to the endemic mindset.

Barry Rose
6 months ago

Rusty – always enjoy your writing, and ET overall. This time, I think you missed an opportunity to do what we, as a pack, should always do: teach. Wearing a mask is not enough. We should teach by example by wearing a mask that actually works & is not a fashion statement. According to 3M, a surgical mask is to prevent the surgeon’s respiratory droplets from reaching the patient, and are rated at 100 microns. Drywall dust is about 3 microns and a virus is about .1-.3 microns. Wearing a fabric or surgical mask is like throwing a tennis ball in your open garage and expecting the walls to block it. Wear what works – K95, KN95, rated at 3 microns, and help those around us to obtain them. And we can teach without being jerks. Help our elderly friends & neighbors with gifts of K95-KN95 masks and disposable surgical gloves. Use them yourself when you deliver them, so they can feel confident about getting out of the house.
Although you didn’t come out & say it in these words, we should live a can-do life, confidently, and try to inspire those around us out of any helplessness they may feel.

Mike
6 months ago

I had a conversation with a client exactly like this last week, and frankly it depressed me a bit (he is a biologist). Thanks as always for the illumination

Ward Good
6 months ago

What if a large number of the dogs receive a shock that is no worse than a little tickle such that that do not even care what section of the box they’re in. No need to whimper. I know of one elderly person who died as a result of her exposure. I also know of a large number of people most between say 16 and 55 who were infected and experienced little or no symptoms. Those people did not learn to whimper in helplessness.

Mark22
6 months ago

The brutal part of this, as all but said by Rusty, is the complete failure of our politicians: those on one side downplaying it and those on the other using it to advance non-Covid agendas (yes, I’m talking to you president Trump and to you governor Cuomo). If there was ever an opportunity to help break the widening gyre – to bring everyone together – this was it. Leaders at all levels – local up to Federal – should have put bipartisan commissions/task forces/etc. in place and told them to work for the best outcome, period. True Republican leaders should have been calling out the BS in their own party’s narrative as true Democratic leaders should have been doing in theirs. But no, a global pandemic just turned into another game of “your side is evil.” And let’s not kid ourselves, both sides picked and chose the science it liked.So here we – all normal Americans – are, essentially on our own, trying to decide who has the “right” science. Instead of being able to follow a few government sites for smart guidance on what to do, we all had to become our own Covid-19 experts, which is something, I know, I’m not qualified to do, but I had no choice. I get your point Rusty about how now we should be playing defense to a foreseeable goal, but we all have to make that assessment ourselves as no one believes anything any of our politicians say – idiot Rs… Read more »

Mark22
6 months ago
Reply to  Rusty Guinn

I agree, in part, because we have no choice and, in part, because, in life, you pretty much have to do almost everything yourself with your small tribe of genuine family and friends. I’m less upset at being “on my own” with Covid as that’s been my life, but I am upset that, one, the government (Rs and Ds) abjectly failed us (a lot of our income and spending is taxed, it would be nice to see those dollars do something good in a crisis) and, two, an opportunity to show how compromise and true bi-partisanship can work was missed.

David Zoller
5 months ago
Reply to  Mark22

What you say about our politicians is that they are politicians not medical experts so why listen to them. There are several medical sites available one is “Medscape” and as a medical doctor I look at it often, but I think others can get it. If not there are others available that do not have an axe to grind.

Mark22
5 months ago
Reply to  David Zoller

I agree, but also, I failed to make my point clearly (my bad). It’s not that I wanted to blindly follow our politicians or that there isn’t good advice a thoughtful person could find away from them, but that they – our government leaders – are in a unique position to craft a coordinated societal response.

If some things – like mask wearing, social distancing, reducing capacity in public places, etc. – are rational to do, then only our government leaders have the power to make that policy. You, Rusty or I can find the smartest individual advice without the government, but only the government could lead the societal top-down response.

This is where the partisan bickering and point scoring from both sides failed us. It was the time when that should have been put aside and a sincere best efforts made to have a bi-partisan government-led response that balanced all the issues – not just the uncertain science of Covid, but the economic and social costs of a shutdown – to come up with an objective plan.

Would it have been perfect – of course not. But if the public believed in the sincerity of the effort and the effort was reasonable, it could have helped versus the chaos that has ensued. That’s it. As a small government guy, I see a limited role for government, but coordinating a measured response in a pandemic is one of those roles.

mwc
mwc
6 months ago

Don’t forget, Learned Happiness can be ‘learned’ just as quickly (or gradually) as Learned Helplessness. I mean, the good Dr. has a book on it!

james morrison
6 months ago

I am an Australian subscriber. We have had a total of 907 COVID19 deaths from a population of c.26million. The only recent cases (until yesterday in Adelaide) have been from returning travellers where you must spend 2 weeks at your own expense confined in a hotel. I live in Sydney. We are politely encoraged to wear a mask on public transport and get tested if we feel unwell. Life is back to normal, except we can’t travel- currently not even interstate. We have no locally transmitted cases for some time. In Victoria, it is a different story. The virus got away from them and they have had 819 out of the 907 Australian deaths because they bungled the hotel quarantine regime for returning travellers (the guards were sleeping with the guests). They have had no cases for more than 2 weeks but are forced to wear a mask. They are also resticted from any travel outside the state. The government has imposed the strictest regime globally and it worked. Most interstingly, a recent study has cited the huge increase in trust that the Australian general public have for both state and federal governments as a result of the government’s response to the coronavirus – since the federal election in 2019. Let me know if you want the link to that study. While I have the highest regard for a my local and state governments, the control measures have had a huge cost. I am noticing a significant impact on young… Read more »

BrianS
6 months ago

K shaped recovery, K shaped politics, K shaped news, K shaped covid … I don’t feel helpless, I just don’t know who to believe.

Nicholas Allen
6 months ago

I can’t help but point out that the strategic pivot from “it’s just the flu” to “virus gonna virus” is tactically just like the pivot from “global cooling”/”global warming” to “climate change”. Taking a falsifiable position, distilling it to the essentials for narrative control, and rendering it unfalsifiable.

chudson
5 months ago

Virus gonna virus. There’s a lot of different flavors of it. My area was a hotspot particularly for servers/bartenders/clerks in the resort area, and also the immigrant workers at food processor plants in the industrial side of town. The infection rates rocketed up quick, but hospitalizations never got above mid 20’s for the area even at the peak. We never saw the huge spike in hospitalizations or deaths. We did however have a big spike in hospitalizations (the mid 20’s) when our Governor shipped Covid positive patients back to nursing homes, and refused to mandate testing for all nursing home employees and visitors.
It’s hard to not be “virus gonna virus” when you personally know many people that have had it, and only personally know an extremely few that have suffered.

Hobbes
5 months ago

This comment may very well start a fight pretty quickly, having very little to do with the pandemic, but I see a considerable number of people who, in my opinion, fall into the “virus gonna virus” mode because of their religious beliefs. I’ve heard directly a number of times, “We’re all going to die someday, and if God wants to take me now with Covid, then I’m okay with that, and I won’t be wearing a mask thank you very much”. How does one argue against this seemingly unimpeachable viewpoint – that there is something bigger out there controlling day to day life, so why fight it?

Desperate_Yuppie
5 months ago
Reply to  Hobbes

My wife is a very devout Christian. I am…not nearly as good as she is, but I try. I can tell you that she and her circle of friends from her old church are infuriated by exactly the kind of people you’re talking about. The angriest she has been this whole time was when that preacher down in Florida (I think, double check me on that) who was openly defying orders and basically commanding his flock to show up to close-quarters services. We tend to view those people as a combination of clowns and mass shooters. They are usually a joke, but sometimes they can do extreme damage.

Desperate_Yuppie
5 months ago
Reply to  Rusty Guinn

I get the same sense. Not wearing a mask to own the libs is often the underlying sentiment, irrespective of what the surface reason given is.

Bob
Bob
5 months ago

Rusty, I worship at the altar of the Pack. But, But, But as Axios says…a vaccine could be 100% effective AND used to cure people with the disease and there are a high percentage of people (everybody knows that everybody knows© who they are) who will not take it. They will not have their freedoms impinged by a mandate that they have health insurance, so when they are hospitalized we all pay for it as part of our taxes and insurance (Should have to have it tattooed on them so they can be put in the side ward while those responsible people get treatment). They will not be bossed by gummint to take anything because it’s controlled by Bill Gates/George Soros/Zionists/Antifa/Communists (Fluoride?) and-or they deny it/hoax it/reject it etc. I despair that we will ever get to herd immunity anyway because i think that studies are mixed about the longevity of antibodies from either being infected or vaccinated. I will wait at least 6 months, maybe a year before I trust it because I am a skeptic. There a gazillion unknown unknowns about the virus. I think there’s a reasonable likelihood that it is a weapon that got out of control, open to being wrong. Meanwhile Chris Martenson a pretty reasonable guy reports that contrary to the nudging media,and the Nudging State and the Nudging Oligarchy©, Hydroxychloroquine, Z-Packs and Zinc when applied early have markedly better outcomes and costs almost nothing compared to Regeneron’s multi thousand dollar cocktail because nobody… Read more »

Thomas Coleman
5 months ago

I check all your boxes – mask – distance – local – help – jerk avoidance. I still struggle with endemic mindset. Our “essential” small business in Houston has not had a day away since the March madness kicked in and to date still sports an R0 = 0. Zero. How is that possible given our owner thinks herd immunity should be encouraged?

I’ve spent evenings reading medical reports that required a medical dictionary for every other word. Learned a good deal – enough to know what we already knew: you don’t want to get it. My work clothes all sport bleach burns.

Epsilon Theory is a salve and a stimulant for sore neurons. And the comments: dialog without riot gear. How cool is that? Thank you all. Go Pack Go

Greg Storms
5 months ago

Rusty, your comment in the last paragraph, “If that isn’t enough to motivate us to pull one another’s legs over the partition, to reinvigorate our own and our community’s commitment to small, personally sacrificial action for our neighbors, I don’t know that anything will”, made me pull out my copy of Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning. He states, “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. ….. Our answer (in being questioned by life) must consist not in talk and mediation but in right action and in right conduct”. I’ve seen the power of small actions to help neighbors in our own little part of the universe. They work.

tromares
5 months ago

These are trying times.

Try not to get sick.

Try not to go broke.

Try to help where you can.

Try not to burn out.

And give yourself some credit for trying.

chudson
5 months ago
Reply to  tromares

I wish I could up-vote this. Best comment I’ve seen today.

Craig
5 months ago

I am not quite sure how the two things connect, but I think learned helplessness is strongly correlated with hopelessness. For myself, hope is grounded in faith. I am curious how others “source” hope? And how could hope be provided to those who are hopeless, those who need to be picked up and placed on the other side of the partition.

The Latest From Epsilon Theory

DISCLOSURES

This commentary is being provided to you as general information only and should not be taken as investment advice. The opinions expressed in these materials represent the personal views of the author(s). It is not investment research or a research recommendation, as it does not constitute substantive research or analysis. Any action that you take as a result of information contained in this document is ultimately your responsibility. Epsilon Theory will not accept liability for any loss or damage, including without limitation to any loss of profit, which may arise directly or indirectly from use of or reliance on such information. Consult your investment advisor before making any investment decisions. It must be noted, that no one can accurately predict the future of the market with certainty or guarantee future investment performance. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Statements in this communication are forward-looking statements. The forward-looking statements and other views expressed herein are as of the date of this publication. Actual future results or occurrences may differ significantly from those anticipated in any forward-looking statements, and there is no guarantee that any predictions will come to pass. The views expressed herein are subject to change at any time, due to numerous market and other factors. Epsilon Theory disclaims any obligation to update publicly or revise any forward-looking statements or views expressed herein. This information is neither an offer to sell nor a solicitation of any offer to buy any securities. This commentary has been prepared without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive it. Epsilon Theory recommends that investors independently evaluate particular investments and strategies, and encourages investors to seek the advice of a financial advisor. The appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor’s individual circumstances and objectives.