Virus, Memes, Herd Immunity and Bias

March 17, 2020

A global commotion with the expansion of coronavirus is an interesting social phenomenon in two dimensions: speed and amplitude. The social networking has exerted its new paper in spreading diffuse alarmists bits in thousandth of seconds to the four corners of the world. Global governmental authorities have acted, in a general way, with ineptitude and slowness. The result: hundreds of millions of people in panic from fear of contamination.

After the initial scare with the first wave outbreaks from East to West, new medical sources has already been accessed, the traditional media has started basing their news articles with more substance, the governmental authorities have started to implement contingency plans already adjusted to the learning curve of other places, and a certain consensus around the benefits of the social distancing has been sedimented as memes in people minds all over the planet.

It is a typical Herd Behavior, already studied by innumerable intellectuals as Friedrich Nietzsche, Wilfred Trotter, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, George Simmel, among others. Social behaviors of this nature are based on cognitive bias that influences our ideas formation, feelings construction and, naturally, our power to decide process.

The pandemic Coronavirus  presents us some challenges in terms of classic cognitive bias of the humanity, amongst which I would point out the five main ones:

1 - Preference for simple options in detriment of ambiguous and complex solutions;

2 - Preference for focus on action with immediate impact in front of us;

3 - Simplification of probabilities to facilitate thoughts;

4 - The search for standards even facing dispersed data;

5 - Focus on details that confirm our hypotheses and beliefs.

Please see the complete bias classification in:

Some practical comments on the herd behavior in this specific case of Coronavirus viral outbreak:

A - The compulsory masks purchase even hearing medical affirmations of its inefficiency as a protection mechanism against contamination;

B - Immediate search for the origin of the virus in the Chinese popular markets as background for the construction of the epidemic narrative;

C - Sprouting of the taboo against a pragmatic reflection on the impacts of the social distancing in the economic deceleration, with increase of unemployment and fall of the average income;

D- Lack of multilateral cooperation between countries in the proliferation combat of the virus in a clearly nationalistic xenophobia movement against foreigners;

E - Increase of the volatility of the global capital markets with downs and ups to the flavor of the infected deaths news all over the planet.

Therefore, what are the learned lessons?

1- Recognize yours cognitive limits. In doubt,  access the CODEX published by WIKIPEDIA with the main already identified bias. And believe: you are not infallible in your mental and emotional processings. On the contrary, you are very susceptible to unconscious aspects, so that absolute neutralization is impossible, but can be attenuated with paused reflection, diversity of ideas, diligent inquiry and attentive observation.

2 - Identify memes surrounding you. Before going to pharmacies and supermarkets to buy things, before isolating yourself in a bunker in the mountain, before propagating received news on the social networks, before repeating things as parrots, stop and think. Herd behaviors are temporary, and always create very interesting anti-cyclical opportunities for those capable of discerning between short and long term, specific and systemic, ample and deep.

3 - The world develops in cyclical spirals. The contemporaneous phenomenon that seems to be unprecedented, is probably an echo of somewhere in the past, perhaps with new nuances. Epidemics are part of the  human being evolution in this planet, and they had been so catastrophic for the humanity (here with all typical anthropocentric bias of human beings visualizing nature in service of their own welfare in the top of the food chain) for the  science evolution (notably, antibiotics and vaccines in one side, basic sanitation and medicine on the other side). Therefore: what seems the end of the world for some, it will not be; what seems a harmless flu for others, it will not be; what seems unknown today, it never is, and certainly will have successors.

4 - The humanity without faith is only one rude humanoid grouping. Only the spiritual evolution can meaning to us more than our biological conditions as primates animal and can keep us away  from the malefic materialistic anthropocentrism that results in predatory consumerism. At moments of acute crises, searching for balance in faith is a path to mental health against external turbulences.

5 - Humanity without science holds back to its more tribal state. Only science keeps us on the trek to the ethical rationality that will preserve the human being and the proper planet life throughout the time. Flu outbreaks are practical problems of the health area, and must be solved by scientists with the endorsement of governmental authorities. As simple as that. Magical and immediate solutions for complex problems normally are easy to execute, but certainly they are mistaken in content and form.


Daniel Motta is the Founder and CEO of BMI Blue Management Institute, a leading niche consulting firm. He is a global thought leader focused on culture, strategy and leadership. He has a PhD in Economics, MSc in Financial Economics and BA in Economics. He is also an OPMer from Harvard Business School. He is the Managing Director of USA-based VC company White Fox Capital and the Senior Tupinambá Maverick of bossa&etc. He was a co-founder of Brazilian Society of Finance. He currently serves NGO UNIBES as Strategic Planning Principal. He is the author of the best selling books Essential Leadership and book Anthesis. He also has three articles published by Harvard Business Review. He is a Board Member of MASP.