Self, community and motivation

Me & Now


Us & Later

This is the conflict every culture lives with. Modern industrialism has embraced the extraordinary power of instant gratification and has amplified it by reminding us that only you know what you want and need.

Fast food plus the me generation. What you want, when you want it.

Years ago, I co-authored a paper that, if implemented would probably have solved our shameful shortage of available organs for donation. In prioritizing people who need a donation, we’d settle a tie by sorting people by how long they’d been on the donor registry. If you’re not willing to sign up to give (one day far in the future) then you don’t get priority to get (when you need it). The self-focused need to be on the list early would essentially eliminate the need for a ranking at all, because humans have been taught to do what helps them now before worrying about later or everyone else. Enough people would panic and race to be on the registry that the shortage would soon disappear.

In our culture, turning the “us and later” narrative (you should sign up for the registry to help a stranger one day) into “me and now” (better sign up today or you’ll regret it) is a generous hack. We shouldn’t have to do it, it’s less resilient, but it would work.

How then, did the media respond to public health officials to flatten the curve on the epidemic virus (not perfectly, not soon enough, but they did)? They didn’t appeal to, “you should do this to protect strangers from getting sick.” They tried but it didn’t work well enough.

They did it by implying, “if you touch someone, you will die almost instantly and quite horribly.” And people, already frightened, embraced the feeling.

People generally aren’t wearing masks and socially distancing out of long-term philanthropy and insight about resources and epidemiology. It’s happening because of the panic of self-preservation.

A rational, generous, community mindset was effectively replaced by an immediate and self-focused desire to be safe. A generous hack.

The selfish dolts on spring break or in bouncy castles didn’t get that memo: they feel fine, why bother being careful?

A narrative of “save yourself right now’ is effective in this culture. In other cultures, less industrialized but hardly less sophisticated, an alternative could be a focus on “us” before “me.”

Without a doubt, short-term market needs are often efficiently filled by short-term selfish behavior. Resilience comes from a longer-term and more community-focused outlook.

The question is: Once people catch the virus and get through it (as most people will) and recover (as more than 9 out of 10 will), what will replace the selfish panic?

Cultural pressure is the sometimes unseen force that allows us to maintain civility. It helps us decide what to choose. People like us, do things like this.

As we face the need to pay for our recovery, for a new and more resilient safety net and for the shifts that our culture demands, will we have to resort to the short-term and the selfish yet again?

Pick your heroes. Whoever you look up to, my hunch is that it’s someone who took a longer and more inclusive view.

We can be those heroes.