The Coronavirus: How Crises Disrupt our Mental Models and What That Means

[Version française ici]

The coronavirus constitutes a major event that completely disrupts world life, rendering all forecasts and plans based on them obsolete within a few weeks. The very nature of a surprise is to bring to light an element of our mental model (deep beliefs that guide our actions) and invalidate it. Our model told us that the world was going in direction A, but it turns out to be going in direction B and we are surprised. This surprise can have more or less serious consequences. Most of the time the reaction will be to dismiss it. When there is a difference between reality and our beliefs, we try at all costs to maintain the latter by inventing all sorts of reasons to minimize the meaning of surprise; it is a matter of integrity because our mental models are constitutive of our deep identity: how we see the world is also how we see ourselves, and how we are in the world. With the coronavirus, learning to manage our mental models has become critical.

If surprise shows a very large gap between a belief and reality, it is what the specialist in organizational theory Karl Weick calls a cosmological episode, i.e. a particularly severe shock that can call into question our very identity: the gap is too great to be denied and the event is so unexpected and powerful that it cannot be interpreted by our existing mental models, leading to their collapse and that of our identity at the same time. This phenomenon was brought to light by Weick in his study of the Mann Gulch fire in the United States in 1949, a forest fire that started out as a banal event, but went wrong and resulted in the deaths of 13 firefighters. Weick shows how the team of firefighters, though composed of seasoned professionals, disintegrated in the face of an event they were too slow to comprehend. As the team no longer existed, the collective identity of the group disintegrated, destroying the willingness and ability of its members to act, each man finding himself alone in the face of flames that could have been easily managed as a team.

The coronavirus epidemic has already shaken many of our mental models: the fact, for example, that our supply of essential foodstuffs is acquired forever, that epidemics and other calamities are reserved for poor countries, or that we have no aid to receive from “developing countries” such as China. If the coronavirus were to result in large numbers of deaths and great economic disruption, as seems more and more likely, let there be no doubt that other, much deeper and much more fundamental mental models would be shaken. This could already be seen when some suggested that only authoritarian powers can effectively manage such an epidemic (forgetting that Taiwan and South Korea, two democracies, have managed it perfectly).

Strengthening mental models in the face of the crisis

Paradoxically, a cosmological episode does not always lead one to question one’s beliefs. It can in some cases, or for some people, serve on the contrary to reinforce them, despite or perhaps because of its magnitude. Thus we have seen in recent days, statements from various personalities, all beginning with “The episode of the coronavirus shows that…” For instance, a former French environmentalist deputy Noël Mamère recently said: “The coronavirus is a kind of dress rehearsal for the major collapse of a model that has found its limits.” Collapse, globalization, the limits of free market, the revenge of “mother nature”, interdependence due to trade, the public sector, the role of the state, and even pensions, any cause will quickly see the coronavirus co-opted for its defense in a major operation to strengthen mental models. The French President himself did not resist the temptation when, towards the end of his speech on 12 March, he said that lessons should be learned from the virus, adding: “There are goods and services that must be placed outside the laws of the market. Delegating our food, our protection, our ability to care, our living environment to others is madness.” One may well be opposed to the “laws of the market” or even the market itself, but how the emergence of the coronavirus shows that food should be placed outside of these so-called market laws, or who these “others” are who are entrusted with these precious goods, is a mystery. Behind what is, to say the least, a shortcut probably lies a mental model such as “There are things too important to be entrusted to the market” that it would be interesting to delve into, or perhaps, more profoundly, that there must be a culprit for all this.

It is obvious that lessons must be learned from the virus, its emergence and its management. But if history has shown one thing, it is that we must be careful about learning from a cosmological event, as the wrong lesson is learned very easily. The launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviets on October 4, 1957 is a good example of a cosmological episode that came as a considerable shock to the Americans. They drew the conclusion that the USSR was overtaking them while in fact, the Soviet space program was a prestige program the kind authoritarian regimes typically like, consuming precious resources and masking the failure of the system as a whole. Generally speaking, one learns the wrong lessons when one is in shock.

Mental model shock (Source: Wikipedia)

Controlling narrative with mental models

The reinforcement of mental models through a cosmological episode is often unconscious; after all, the characteristic of a mental model is not to be seen as a model, but as a series of universal and eternal truths. It is, however, sometimes deliberately used precisely to advance one’s own mental models. A famous historical example is the German defeat of 1918. While it was due to a collapse of the army in the very early autumn, the German far right managed to present it as the result of a betrayal, a “stab in the back” by the Social Democratic government, which had to take over the running of affairs once the disaster was over. This way of looking at things, this mental model, was widely accepted in post-war Germany and served Hitler well in his rise to power. The unique political opportunity provided today by the coronavirus has not escaped some people. François Ruffin, MP for France Insoumise, a hard-left party, wrote in a tweet: “This crisis is also a window for us: requisitioning, price caps, etc. At such times, minds are like a soft dough, where one can put forward new ideas. NGOs, unions, parties, let’s be there!”

The key to a cosmological episode, apart from managing the event itself, is to win the battle of narration, of mental models, to get people to accept the meaning of the event. Whatever the consequences of the coronavirus, it is obvious that this “battle” has already begun, that its consequences will be very heavy, and that they will be very different depending on who wins it.

To learn more on mental models, read my previous articles: How Mental Models Prevent Organizational Change: The Tragedy of the Greenland Settlers. About uncertainty and the management of the coronavirus crisis, read The Four Things that the Coronavirus Reminds Us About Decision Making in Uncertainty.

2 responses to “The Coronavirus: How Crises Disrupt our Mental Models and What That Means

  1. Pingback: Le coronavirus ou comment les crises bouleversent nos modèles mentaux | Philippe Silberzahn

  2. Pingback: Coronavirus: Four Rules for the Decision-Maker to Work with Experts in the Face of an Unprecedented Event | Philippe Silberzahn

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