Saturday, May 23, 2020

Behavioral Engineering and Systems Thinking in the Times of Crisis

There is an ancient parable of blind men and an elephant.  Each of the blind men touches one part of the elephant and concludes what the elephant is based on the part they touch.  The individual experiences lead to distorted views of what an elephant is.  Similarly, the new virus 2019 situation has created multiple interpretations and research efforts that lead to conclusions based on parts of the issue but not the totality.  What some epidemiologists see and prescribe is just a part of the equation.  What some physicians detect is another part of the whole.  What others speculate based on claims of infringement on freedom is still another perspective that does not include the other perspectives.

While it is practically impossible to save all lifes, it is viable to save many.  While it is impossible for people to remain isolated for a prolonged period of time hoping for some cure or vaccine, it is possible to offer responsible freedom.  Prohibitions has shown to be unproductive as they tend to result in poor quality outcomes.  So what can societies do?  Based on behavioral science research and behavioral economics, it is possible to shape behavior and incentivize actions that lead to less risky behaviors while enhancing the ability of people to continue their lives and their livelihoods.

Facilitating cleanliness by providing disinfectants is a simple and cheaper solution that keeping people out of the workforce.  Designing environments to avoid contagion but encourage productivity is doable with simple transparent partitions.  Studying behavior in its context and then using that knowledge to facilitate freedom and satisfaction is feasible.  Unfortunately each of the blind men only look at separate parts and not the whole.  Systems thinking requires cooperation and open mindedness.  It requires enlightened and informed leadership.

Handling a crisis in the 21st century as our ancestors handled them in the 18th century is strange as it shows that we have advanced very little in many domains.  Hopefully the blind men will be able to see again so that the world can move forward.

Two years later, we are still under ancient logistics even after vaccines are available.  Now the epidemiology community and the media keep pounding fear and ultimately ignorance.  Are they expecting a "safe forever" population.  That seems rather stupid to me.  Millions of dollars spent on supporting the WHO, the CDC, and the FDA and other organizations so they can actually do more damage than good.  It is time for rationality to take over.

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