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.

Is Negative Target Fixation Crushing Your Opportunities?

image of clear field from plane for negative target fixation blog post - Gregory Olson

In a past life I founded a software company. In that company, I cast a wide net searching for learning and support wherever I could get it. One of the places I landed was at garage.com’s bootcamp for entrepreneurs. During my two-day immersion with Guy Kawasaki and entrepreneurs at all stages I heard a valuable story that resonated with me; it still does. It goes like this…

image of clear field with object from plane approaching for negative target fixation blog post - Delight Customers Gregory Olson
Pilots of small aircraft are a highly attentive and skilled group. Some might even refer to them as anal-retentive. They are trained to always look for the clear field; that is the place where they’ll set the plane down in the event of engine failure. This obsessive lot are constantly scanning the horizon, looking out the window, and monitoring their gauges much like an attentive driver rotates glances among the speedometer, rear-view mirror, side mirror, and windshield. With a small plane, you have much more control than a large plane so putting one down in a clear field doesn’t necessitate a grisly crash like one normally associates with the crash landing of a commercial airliner. So you’d expect more fatalities with large commercial airliners. But, statistically this isn’t what happens at all. Most of the fatal airplane crashes are small planes that are more easily controlled by highly attentive and skilled individuals. So, what is going on? Chock it up to Negative Target Fixation.

image of clear field with tree or object for plane approaching - Negative target fixation blog post - Greg Olson

Here is what often happens during the small craft clear field landing scenario. The pilot, upon having engine trouble, recalls the field they saw moments before. They position the plane and begin a controlled descent toward the clear field. As they approach the field they notice an object, it could be a tree, a house, or a goal post; it doesn’t matter, the outcome is the same. Consciously or more likely subconsciously the pilot begins saying or thinking, “Don’t hit the goal post. Don’t hit the goal post. Don’t hit the goal post.” The plane descends further, speed is well within control, and as the plane approaches the field it seems to make a beeline right toward the goal post. Negative Target Fixation captivated the pilot’s attention.

Not being a pilot myself, I’ve been validating this story with pilots of small aircraft ever since I heard it. Granted everybody I’ve talked to has survived and most never had engine trouble that necessitated such a landing. What would be telling would be to interview those who didn’t survive.

The Office Experiment

Interested with the concept of Negative Target Fixation and its applicability to the business world I ran an experiment when I returned to my office. We had a small portable golf putting setup in our open office space. We’d use this to blow off steam and generally take a break from the nonstop pace of our startup. Usually 3 or 4 people would be involved. This day the setup was a little different. In between where we putted from and the receiving cup that would receive our golf ball I placed an office chair, you know the type, thin round chromed steel legs and a curved plastic bottom and backside. Hey, we were frugal Ikea shoppers.

Player number one stepped up to the tee mark, peered over and around the chair and swatted the ball with the putter. The ball went directly to the steel leg. Player number two, same fate. Player three was me and I simply ignored the chair. I don’t remember if I got a hole-in-one, but I did not hit the chair legs. I was focused on the green not even thinking, “Don’t hit the chair.” Player four also crashed his proverbial plane into the goal post.

After that round completed I told the story of negative target fixation and we played another. This time nobody’s golf ball hit the chair legs. The lesson was imprinted in my mind like indelible ink. To this day when things are going rough or not measuring up or there are obstacles in the way, I try to stay focused on the value and benefits, what is possible, and creating a clear path forward. If you are in leadership you have a duty to keep your team positively focused on the path forward. But, you can also employ this bit of team psychology no matter your place on the team. Good luck in your ventures. May all of your opportunities always clear the goal post.

image of goal posts for plane to avoid with Negative target fixation blog post - Greg Olson