The Pandemic Attention & Patience Deficit: Will we have the cognitive bandwidth to see this through?
As I find peace and freedom in being able to take in the fresh air on a long bike ride, I find my wonderland halted when I have to stop at a red light… which brings me within an “unsafe” social distance and sneers for not dawning my mask.
A good chunk of my life is attracted to things transforming, or even better, about to transform. In this respect, I don’t think I am alone. For many people and in many contexts, change equates to progress. Not many of us want to return to a world where we: communicate only through letters, receive news through morning & evening edition newspapers or get to the next town by horse-and-buggy. Change is good, right? The big caveat. Sweeping change may be en vogue, but getting change to stick is the other side of a progressive society’s coin.
In the 2020s, everything has been accelerated. In research that I have called the “Hockey Stick Monitor” (quintessentially Canadian), society has sped up across a basket of fifty factors 4X faster than the previous generation. Think how movies used to stay in theatres forever (1982’s E.T. was in the top 10 box office for 44 weeks); now blockbusters are fortunate to stay two weeks at the top. Think about the pace of home delivery - we used to be content with 7-14 days; now satisfaction is measured in hours. Ponder the immediacy of social media. Consider the impatience we have with slow customer service. Each year, customer expectations go up 25%, but company delivery only improves 5% annually. Something has to give — and it usually is our attention and patience.
So we have been sped up. In an oft-quoted Microsoft study, our online attention spans appear to have dropped 33% in a span of just fifteen years, to less than that of a goldfish. A more recent University of Denmark study suggests a social group acceleration, citing Twitter hashtags spending 33% less time at the top of what’s trending over a duration of just three years.
A lot of this instinctual drive for “what’s next” is abetted by the technology and media around us, but that isn’t the only reason. As humans, our cognitive wick is getting shorter and shorter. We are in a change fog. Because we know more, we now focus less. Because we desire more, we commit less. Because we stress more, we worry faster.
Societally, we have a fierce competition for novelty and this is the challenge of the times we find ourselves in. Will we be able to concretely solve the direct & underlying challenges of this COVID-19 pandemic given our shortening levels of attention and patience? For our collective sake, I hope we can.
Let’s be clear. The vaccine is not what will solve this pandemic. I repeat — the vaccine will NOT solve the pandemic. We will not simply get immunized and be able to file 2020 (and parts of 2021) away as merely a bad dream, and then move on with our lives. Oh no. In our first survey that we fielded with our Grey Swan Guild, a full 57 percent of us believe COVID is a long-term defining shock to our culture, economy & society. Most of that majority believes, it may take a generation to fully resolve the issues that have been identified, hatched and grown during this pandemic. Attention and patience required indeed!
Even the symptom of the pandemic, the sneeze if you will — being able to meet, travel and conduct business freely —will take longer than most could have plausibly considered at the start of the pandemic. In our wildest dreams, if we dialed back to our mindsets in April,2020, only the most pessimistic or brutally rational of us could consider a pandemic lasting into 2022. An early graph-laden Institute for Health Metrics & Evaluation’s (IMHE) pandemic projection model suggested April 12th, 2020 might have been the date of peak infection and death rates in the U.S.. You could not have been more wrong IMHE.
Our guess inside the keen sensemaking observers of the guild is that April’22 is the median projected date on when things return back to normal (whatever that looks like) — essentially double the amount of time of what we have experienced-to-date. Will you have the patience to mask up, socially distance and forego ways of making income, learning and relationships for the next 16 months? On that point, the jury is still out but the signals are worrying.
If you believe I am putting the sped up lifestyle of post-Internet modernity singularly on trial, I am not. The human need to be resilient, get past societal malaise and move on, is a trait that has made us successful as a species. Even during the Spanish Flu in 1918, there were countless examples of younger adults getting restless and wanting to go to movie theatres again cited in their letters sent back home to parents. Similar to rallies seen around the world in 2020, groups of people protesting against masks surfaced as the Spanish flu hit its own wave two in the winter of 1918.
More recently, the 1973-74 Oil Embargo drove massive Western world citizen frustration and impatience. Even in a corruption era of Watergate, nearly half of Americans believed energy, and the long gas stations lines and the quadrupling of price jumps that came with it, was the biggest national problem by a healthy margin (Gallup, 1973). However, they had quickly moved onto inflation as the biggest issue the following year with energy barely registering a blip (Gallup, 1974).
Similar “here today, citizen uproar” followed by “gone tomorrow, moving onto the next thing” has been witnessed in this millenia. Social media fan fires that can get extinguished quickly. How many people are still practising members of the Occupy movement’s reaction to the 2008 financial crisis? Not many, I thought so. How many demonstrators have effectively turned their Arab Spring chants and pickets into effective change? Aside from a Tunisian government change, Arab Spring was either squashed, went underground or petered away under the weight of day-to-day living.
I have tried to provide my argument about this pandemic attention and patience deficit while it is still happening. Consider this observation. In March’20, the U.S. experienced over 3,000 deaths and 160,000 reported cases of COVID. During the same time period, in looking at the major headlines of the New York Times that month, coronavirus and it’s related issues, received a whopping and deservedly high 87% of the front page coverage. Now fast forward to November’20. The U.S. has just incurred 35,000 deaths and over 4 million reported cases of COVID. Wave II is spreading like wildfire. And yet as I sampled the New York Times’ front pages, coverage of this 10-20X bigger epidemic received only 29% of the coverage. We have taken our eyes off of what’s important already.
What gives? Do the deaths not count so much in November as they did in March? I hope not. Is the new Biden-Harris government going to wave a magic wand over the upcoming December totals, so don’t worry? Well they’re not even in power yet, so no. Is it regretful, but now that we know more, it’s their fault because they didn’t wear masks? I’d like to think we have more sense and reason than that as humans. No, what’s happened is we just got tired. We overloaded on COVID and would prefer not to cast our supply of scant attention to the pandemic realities in the media that we read, or in the missives from our leaders, or in conversations around the Thanksgiving family dinners. We’re experiencing COVID attention deficit right now, so what the heck will it look like a year from now?
Short of new strains of this virus, faster testing and vaccines will wrestle a lot of this epidemic to the mat over the next twelve months. However, what we have seen is that societal rifts and challenges will be much tougher to band-aid. Like Humpty Dumpty, pandemic effects will not easily be put back together again.
We asked our guild what are the most consequential 20-year problems stemming from this pandemic. Among over thirty-five potential long term problems posed, here’s what our Guild surfaced as the top seven (in rank order of importance):
#1 Crushing Government Debt
#2 Ongoing Mental Health Challenges
#3 Middle Class Numbers/Income Shrink & Wealth Disparity
#4 Continued Pandemics & Global Scale Health Challenges
#5 Polarization of Beliefs & Proliferation of Extreme Opinions
#6 A Permanent State of Disruption & Society
#7 Cities & Downtowns Decimated
Solving one of these by themselves is challenging. Curing all seven is wishful nirvana. Any
meaningful headway would require the most resolute of leadership and the unwavering support of their citizens, employees, customers and stakeholders behind them. I’d like to stay positive here, but I do have considerable doubts on our capacity.
Without weighing into what will actually happen (after all, I am a futureproofier not a clairvoyant), there are three things in favour of real positive change happening on the other side of this pandemic.
Humans are Creatures of Habit - we have all lived in some stages of quarantine globally for 9-12 months. When it comes to habits, they say if you stick at something for 90 days, it becomes embedded. And so it is with our pandemic. Some of the rituals, beliefs and behaviours we have acquired have become hard set like concrete. Do I believe we are ever going back to work like we used to? No. Now that we have released a globe of online ordering and delivery-happy customers, is retail going back to what it was like in 2019? Definitely not. Will we have a better adoption and appreciation for technology, the outdoors and work-life balance? Yes, I’m optimistic. Maybe our resolve to get at some of the bigger existential challenges this pandemic has thrown at us may become concrete too.
A Political, Economic Societal & Environmental Awakening - like Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs & Ham, after being forced into change, perhaps we do like the change after all Sam-I-Am. Perhaps these compromises to a world under attack, may actually have advantages. People CAN actually work from home very effectively. With greater collaboration, maybe we CAN cure other illnesses in less time like COVID-19. A greater sensitivity to mental health issues MAY STAY in place even when we pull the pandemic tablecloth away. Online education and digital transformation MAY ACTUALLY HAVE some distinct advantages even amongst its most obstinate critics. World War II carried with it a number of generational changes and wave of post-war economic prosperity, maybe this pandemic will too.
Time to Reflect on What’s Important - whether it’s time savings on travel, commuting, shopping or schooling, the majority of us have had more time to stand, or sit back, and consider what’s really important. 2020 has been a horrible yet important reappraisal epoch. Now, can we rally a more purpose-driven life to tackle society’s darker spots? Is it that crazy to believe the level of global collaboration and citizen resilience we had to tackle this pandemic could work against global warming too? Could we re-envision cities to be more hospitable places to live? Given the separation and sense of loss we have had from loved ones, could we socialize and treat our friends, neighbours and strangers with more of our attention, respect and charity when things ramp up? With this siesta, at least there is hope.
On the flip side,. here are the three things that will keep us in check, or perhaps even regress against the long ranging effects of this pandemic (all with some measure of pandemic attention and patience deficit to blame):
Historical Attention Deficit & The Craving to Return to Back to Normal - as much as humans embrace change and are resilient to disruption, they also like predictability and trust in patterns to how their lives work. Will we rush back into competitive business practices, fossil fueled cars, antiquated learning styles and the rat race? Maybe. Will we forget about our families, friends and neighbours when we can chase fame and fortune more easily again? Potentially. Will we still stand up to injustices when we are busy holding down that demanding job at the office again? Tough questions to answer while still in the middle of this crisis.
Social Class Attention Deficit & Polarization - for some people, this pandemic has been a blood letting. Death of loved ones, loss of income, solvency issues, huge mental health afflictions and challenges to security and domestic safety are but a few of their many impacts, For others, it has been a major inconvenience and stressful, yet manageable interruption to life as normal. And candidly, for others, it hasn’t been all that bad. For some, putting up with the struggle of not going to a shopping mall or long vacation has been more than counter-balanced by the increasing value of stock portfolios and taking time out to smell the roses. The pandemic experience has been uneven, perhaps the post-pandemic reaction and attention to key matters will also be lopsided in its focus too.
Institutional Attention Deficit and Mettle - sovereign global debt will break new records in the coming months and reach $277 trillion by the end of the year, representing a record level global debt-to-GDP ratio of 365%. Even if governments have the memory and resolve to act (which is challenging when principles are often shaped by polls), will they be able to foot the bill on tackling these long-term burdensome challenges? In previous wars, conflicts and crises with resultant and lasting heavy burdens, most incumbent governments were thrown out. Do future public sector leaders want to repeat that fate? Leadership in all institutions, public and private, may turn into the art of virtue signalling without investing in any real teeth to bite and swallow the challenges afoot.
As we think about getting to the back half of this immediate pandemic stage, we see the peak of some daunting challenges ahead of us. Will we be able to scale them? We are reminded that catching our attention may be easy, keeping our attention is so much harder. We are nudged into recognizing our emotion and outrage in the face of unfairness is always bubbling on the surface, keeping our patience and resolve means diving so much deeper. Let’s hope for our sake we all can.