Most people need social approval to prepare for a widely-reported pandemic

Saturday, February 29th, 2020

COVID-19 could be pretty bad for you, Jacobian of LessWrong reminds us:

But the worst thing that could happen is that you’re seen doing something about the coronavirus before you’re given permission to.

I’ll defend this statement in a minute, but first of all: I am now giving you permission to do something about COVID-19. You have permission to read up on the symptoms of the disease and how it spreads. Educate yourself on the best ways to avoid it. Stock up on obvious essentials such as food, water, soap, and medicine, as well as less obvious things like oxygen saturation monitors so you know if you need emergency care once you’re sick. You should decide ahead of time what your triggers are for changing your routines or turtling up at home.

In fact, you should go do all those things before reading the rest of the post. I am not going to provide any more factual justifications for preparing. If you’ve been following the news and doing the research, you can decide for yourself. And if instead of factual justifications you’ve been following the cues of people around you to decide when it’s socially acceptable to prep for a pandemic, then all you need to know is that I’ve already put my reputation on the line as a coronaprepper.

Instead this post is about the strange fact that most people need social approval to prepare for a widely-reported pandemic.

As Eliezer reminded us, most people sitting alone in a room will quickly get out if it starts filling up with smoke. But if two other people in the room seem unperturbed, almost everyone will stay put. That is the result of a famous experiment from the 1960s and its replications — people will sit and nervously look around at their peers for 20 minutes even as thick smoke starts obscuring their vision.

The coronavirus was identified on January 7th and spread outside China by the 13th. American media ran some stories about how you should worry more about the seasonal flu. The markets didn’t budge. Rationalist Twitter started tweeting excitedly about R0 and supply chains.

Over the next two weeks, Chinese COVID cases kept climbing at 60%/day reaching 17,000 by February 2nd. Cases were confirmed in Europe and the US. The WHO declared a global emergency. The former FDA commissioner explained why a law technicality made it illegal for US hospitals to test people for coronavirus, implying that we would have no idea how many Americans have contracted the disease. Everyone mostly ignored him including all major media publications, and equity markets hit an all time high. By this point several Rationalists in Silicon Valley and elsewhere started seriously prepping for a pandemic and canceling large social gatherings.

On the 13th, Vox published a story mocking people in Silicon Valley for worrying about COVID-19. The article contained multiple factual mistakes about the virus and the opinions of public health experts.

On February 17th, Eliezer asked how markets should react to an obvious looming pandemic. Most people agreed that the markets should freak out and aren’t. Most people decided to trust the markets over their own judgment. As an avowed efficient marketeer who hasn’t made an active stock trade in a decade, I started at that Tweet for a long time. I stared at it some more. Then I went ahead and sold 10% of the stocks I owned and started buying respirators and beans.

By the 21st, the pandemic and its concomitant shortages hit everywhere from Iran to Italy while in the US thousands of people were asked to self-quarantine. Most elected officials in the US seemed utterly unaware that anything was happening. CNN ran a front page story about the real enemies being racism and the seasonal flu.


  1. CVLR says:

    This Jacobian fellow is off his rocker.

    Let me tell you about the world.

    It’s pretty simple, really.

    Nothing is going to happen because nothing ever happens.

    And if you’re afeared of this thing because you’re exposed to a JIT supply chain with lash consisting of a grand total of two weeks, you’ve already wandered down a back alley in the wrong part of town, at night.

    As your last rattling breath departs your body, say a prayer to the capitalists.

  2. Harry Jones says:

    Everybody’s guessing. Nobody’s admitting it.

    Just manage the risks as best you can and get on with life. Life either goes on or it doesn’t. Overthinking is when your brain runs out of information and still keeps trying to increase certainty. Calm down and wait for more information to come in.

    BTW, Jacobian’s other posts are a bit… trippy.

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