Unwittingly Aiding and Abetting the Enemy

[This article is from an 8-minute talk I gave to members of the Olympic Club on March 4, 2021, Unwittingly Aiding and Abetting the Enemy. I’ve added a few links and shared it here for members of the Olympic Club and the broader public. I’ve turned off comments but feel free to reach me directly or comment and share on social media.]

An 8 minute talk and an even quicker read.

Gentlemen, we’ve been at war for more than a year, now.
The enemy has killed more Americans than all of the Americans who were killed in World War I and II combined. 

This foreign invader isn’t another nation state. They are in this fight, too. Our common enemy is the pathogen SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. SARS-CoV-2 is winning because it is exploiting our human cognitive limitations.

I’m going to share five of these limitations so you understand how it is that so many Americans are unwittingly aiding and abetting the enemy.

The word cognition comes from the latin word “cognoscere” which is to “get to know”. Cognition helps us to make sense of the world around us so that we can interact safely with our environment. This leads me to our first cognitive limitation.

We Rely on Our Feelings to Assess Risk.

That ladder doesn’t feel safe, that bear looks like she’s going to eat me, this food doesn’t smell right, etc. We can rely our our intuition and feelings to gauge the risk of a given situation. And, it usually turns out okay. After all, our species has survived without spreadsheets and having to carefully weigh the pros and cons of every decision to be made. Let me know if you find evidence of hieroglyphic spreadsheets.

When it comes to COVID-19 it’s a different story. Here is why.  For the food, the ladder and the bear, our sense of risk is influenced by the direct experiences we have or those indirect experiences we have through film or news media or even stories heard. That’s the experience halo - if you remember my talk about experiences.

But, few Americans know what it’s like to experience respiratory distress, renal failure, or what it's like to have our toes or fingers succumb to tissue death

It’s abstract. We haven’t seen the movie; we don’t feel it. We’re better equipped to imagine the risk of running across a busy highway than we are to assess a global pandemic that’s actively killing our compatriots.

Our Second Cognitive Shortcoming is Related to Finding Patterns.

Usually this is a strength.  But, it's difficult to find patterns in things you cannot see. This enemy is invisible. We don’t see the virus even as it passes right beneath our noses. 

Our pattern making brains are further challenged because of the time lags between exposure - infection - and death.

Delays imperil our ability to comprehend cause and effect. Imagine how confused you’d have been as a child if you pushed your toy truck and days later it finally moved.

Delays and invisibility create ambiguity.  Something politicians and ideologues have exploited at the expense of human lives and public health - especially in the United States. Who killed Herman Cain? He attended the infamous Tulsa rally, but he also reportedly did plenty of travel in the weeks priorWho was the source? Nobody pulled the trigger. Nobody laced his door knobs with Novichok

The person who infected Herman Cain likely has no idea they even did it. It is conceivable that the person responsible for his death never even showed symptoms.

Asymptomatic carriers of SARS-CoV-2 are especially effective at aiding and abetting this pathogenic killer. A recent report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association puts the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from people without COVID-19 symptoms at 59%.

COVID-19 has turned each of us into a potential serial killer.

Another Cognitive Deficit is Our Brains are Terrible at Understanding Exponential Growth.

Most of our real world experience is linear. Linear growth has the characteristic of growing by the same amount in each unit of time, like pandemic weight gain or tomatoes growing in Mr. Evan’s garden. 

Exponential growth is different. It grows very slowly at first, but more and more rapidly with each unit of time. Examples include bacteria growth, compound interest, radioactive decay, and the spread of  SARS-CoV-2. 

Exponential growth is hard for us to conceptualize because it doesn’t dominate our visible world. When the effects of exponential growth do become visible we usually attribute them to something more understandable.

For example, you might hear someway say, "I got sick - with food poisoning. Yes, but it was exponential growth that turned a single bacterium into a population of 32,768 descendants after 5 hours of doubling every 20 minutes. That is your bad potato salad on a warm summer day scenario.

Maybe in addition to a mask mandate we should have a math mandate.

Our 4th Cognitive Deficit is that our Brains are Terrible at Interpreting Large Numbers.

As of Tuesday there were 516,000 deaths reported in the US due to COVID-19. Let’s give this number more meaning. Imagine a Boeing 737.

It has 23 rows of seats. Each row has 3 seats on each side of the aisle. So, each plane has 23 * 6 or 138 seats.  So, 516,000 deaths / 365 days in this pandemic year is roughly 1413 people dead per day.   Divide 1413 by the seat capacity of 138 and you get about 10.2 airplanes. 

Thinking about it like this, it means that ten planes fully loaded with passengers have crashed on U.S. soil every day of this pandemic. Imagine if a traditional enemy shot that many planes out of the sky over U.S. soil. Our political and social conversations and actions would have been very different.

Once again the advantage goes to the invisible enemy that leverages our cognitive deficiencies. Those deficiencies exist in all of us - no matter our station in life. Nobody is immune.

Our 5th Cognitive Shortcoming is Also Related to Large Numbers.

When the death toll moves from say 510,000 to 516,000 it doesn’t mean that much. Large and increasing numbers make us numb. It’s a bizarre and well-documented phenomenon known as psychic numbing

It has been studied by many psychologists including Paul Slovic who says, "Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.

When we don’t feel we can help - we give up trying. 


This psychic numbing along with all of the other worries of pandemic life can wear down even the most well-intentioned people. 

And when we get tired we’re back to our first deficiency, not thinking clearly about risk. Now that people are getting vaccinated it is an opportune time for the virus to morph and recruit new citizen soldiers. 

Many of you are vaccinated now or will be soon. Please remember, even vaccinated you can still spread the virus. My advice. Don’t get tired. Don’t give up. Don't give in. Don’t aid and abet this invisible killer, this public enemy #1.

No, leave that to your fellow unwitting Americans.

about the author

Ancient Greek Theatre in Segesta Sicily Italy with Greg

I see greater potential for all of us, as individuals, organizations, and even nations. This belief is what guides my writing and my work.

Greg is a virtual chief marketing officer to small and medium sized businesses. He founded Delightability, LLC. with the belief that if you delight customers success will follow.

Greg authored The Experience Design Blueprint, a step-by-step guide to designing better experiences and improving innovation culture. A recipe book for creating happier customers and healthier organizations, it has 78 images, 25 stories, and 56 recipes (mental models) that apply to nonprofit, for-profit, and government organizations.

His latest book, L’ impossipreneurs: A Hopeful Journey Through Tomorrow, is a light-hearted and deadly serious book about a brighter future where we live more meaningful lives, governments invest in people and sustainable progress, and technology serves humans.

Teachers Guns and Kids – Oh My

image of interesting architecture seen in Liverpool England - Gregory Olson - Author

[This article is from a talk I gave to members of the Olympic Club on February 22, 2018, Experiences Part II . The talk ties together the Experience Halo and the emotional scars that remain after school shootings. I’ve added a few links and shared it here for members of the Olympic Club and the broader public. I’ve turned off comments but feel free to reach me directly or comment and share on social media. My February 1, 2018 talk on Experiences while referenced here is not yet online.}

an 8 minute talk and an even quicker read

It was a beautiful spring day in 2003. Exams were over. Commencement was around the corner. It was a quiet Friday afternoon.

Then the sound of smashing glass and automatic gunfire broke the calm. tatt tatt tatt tatt tatt – tatt tatt tatt tatt tatt

Professor Susan Helper came face to face with the shooter. She slammed her office door just as he fired his gun, directly at her. The bullet came through the door, hit her in the chest, bounced off her collar-bone and onto the floor.

She was lucky. She was eventually rescued by police 4 hours later.
That was Case Western University.

School Shootings Continue

Since 2013, there’s been an average of 1 school shooting per week in the U.S.

Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida last week, Professor Helper spoke out. It’s been 15 years since she was shot. Physically, she healed long ago. But, every time there is another school shooting her emotional healing cycle starts again.

She knows it’s completely irrational to feel affected by a shooting that happens across the country. But, she still fears for her safety and feels powerless.

image of filmstrip that plays in mind includes experiences and stories heard of school shootings - The Experience Halo from book Experience Design Blueprint - Gregory Olson 
A few weeks ago, I gave a talk about experiences. In that talk I introduced The Experience Hoop. I also mentioned that much of our experiences is all in our heads. And that requires another mental model, the Experience Halo.

The Experience Halo

The Experience Halo is that filmstrip that plays in your head. It’s shaped in part by your context, but also by your past experiences, brand baggage, and stories heard.

Our Experience Halo remembers. It reminds us of the brands we love and those we hate. Our halo recalls past experiences both good and bad. And, it also remembers stories, EVEN if those stories didn’t involve us, directly.

For example, if we hear of a potential investment opportunity – our Halo might conjure up warnings of Bernie Madoff Ponzi schemes or Enron – even though we may never have been affected by either one.

Happily, our Experience Halo also reminds us of good stories. Case in point: Mr. Burnham shared a wonderful story where as a boy he hit up his father for money to purchase a kite. His father refused and helped him build a kite instead. That story is now in our own Experience Halo. It didn’t happen to us, but if a kid in your life hits you up for money to buy a kite, you just might recall that story – even if you ultimately give them money.

With each new school shooting, Professor Helper’s Experience Halo AWAKENS.

I want to bring this a little closer to home.

image of open door and vulnerability from teacher who experienced a school shooting - the Experience Design Blueprint 

School Shooting Club – Not the Club You Wish to Join

My friend Dana is a Biology Teacher at Marysville Pilchuck High School.

On October 24, 2014, Dana joined the School Shooting Club. On that day, a 15-year-old assassin shot five students in the school cafeteria before killing himself.

She hasn’t gotten over it. She can’t. Like Susan Helper her Experience Halo gets stoked with every new school shooting. I want to share with you what Dana recently said:

Two thoughts occurred to me this year that most people do not have to think about at work:

First, I was sitting in my desk in my empty classroom working on my computer during my prep period. I suddenly was conscious that my door was unlocked and I started to imagine a gunman coming in to kill me. Do you ever think about that at work? When I do, I imagine begging him to let me live because I have kids who need their mother. What would you beg?

Second, when my students cleared out after the last class, there was a lone backpack left behind. As I picked it up to find out who it belonged to, I suddenly felt panicked that it might be a bomb. I began to rush it to the door to throw it outside (I’m not trained in handling bombs, clearly) and then the student came back in to claim it. I laughed it off, but thought, “What the hell is wrong with me?”

Do you ever wonder if you might have a backpack bomb at your work? Obviously, you might if you are in law enforcement or the TSA, but I AM A BIOLOGY TEACHER.

I think about saving children from being shot at school when I am not thinking about teaching them, counseling them, making sure they are fed and safe, planning their futures, and just getting them to turn in their homework.

People are coming up with terrible reasons not to keep me safe. Not to keep children safe. I’ll always be on the side of kids, and, at this point, I’m listening to them for answers.

Reasonable People Agree Yet Inaction on Gun Reform Persists

Most Americans and politicians agree that a kid that can’t buy beer shouldn’t be able to buy an assault rifle. Or, that if you are deemed dangerous enough to put on the no-fly list then you ought to be put on the “can’t buy an assault rifle list”, too.

Sadly, that list doesn’t exist. Most other lists related to guns or gun deaths doesn’t exist either. You can thank the NRA and the members of congress they purchased for that.

But, this school shooting may have finally sparked a change.

High School Students Are Leading the Change

Surviving students of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting are forcing a new conversation. They’ve started movements such as #StudentsStandup, #NeverAgain, and #MarchForOurLives, a nationwide march on the 24th of next month.

image of March For Our Lives Banner from student leader who survived school shooting 
It IS possible to support the 2nd amendment AND also support sensible gun reform.

In this movement, politicians will be shamed for inaction on sensible gun reforms while they continue to take money from the gun lobby.

If there is one group that is even better than cats or Russian trolls at hijacking the emotions of adults, its kids. After all, they aren’t buying their own Lucky Charms.

Our teachers are not bodyguards or first responders. They are educators trained to get other people to think.

And, it looks like now it’s the kids who are getting us to think. I only hope our lawmakers will listen, learn, and act.

Board Free for Now

I recently completed service terms on two boards. On the first board, a University department, I was an inaugural board member who had served long past my term-limits.  My second board position was for a social investor and international financial cooperative where I served two consecutive 3-year terms.

Benefits Galore

Each board experience broadened my perspective, provided me with opportunities to meet interesting people from other countries and expand my professional and leadership skills.  Of course, I also cared about the organizations and their respective missions.

Culture of Care

While the University department is primarily concerned with preparing students for tomorrows STEM careers, the social investor is investing in people and organizations working in agricultural, renewable energy, and a plethora of social enterprises across 70 countries. In working with them, I gained a better understanding of how the world’s poorest people are most affected by climate change and extreme weather events. Both organizations are deeply empathetic and represent a #CultureOfCare, a concept I’d like to see expanded and normalized across the general population.

Perhaps There is Board Service in Your Future

If you lean forward a little and take initiative most people are happy to let you lead. If you haven’t served as a volunteer board member you might consider it. There are plenty of organizations who would benefit from more heads, hearts, and hands at the table. But, the organization isn’t the only one to benefit. Your service to others will forever change you, for good.