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Lemmings, Toilets, and Reptile Brains: How Should We Respond to COVID-19 Hysteria?

By MICHAEL SHAPIRO, PhD

March 2020

There is a myth with which we’re all familiar. It has to do with lemmings. As you might know, lemmings are adorable little rodents that are typically found in or near the Arctic tundra. They are usually around 6 inches in length, with a cute stubby tail, soft fur, and the appealing little face that is characteristic of some of our most cherished herbivores (like the Easter bunny). They migrate in large herds, and during their migratory season they appear suddenly, en masse, seemingly out of nowhere.

However, the most persistent myth about lemmings is that when their population becomes unsustainably great, they commit mass suicide by following each other off of tall seaside cliffs. This myth is partly based on the fact that every three or four years, a slice of lemmings (no…really! That’s what a group of lemmings is called!) will get so big that they’ll head out and try to migrate elsewhere, where there’s more room, and they assume that their property taxes will be lower. In doing so, they often cross a body of moving water (like a river), and several of them – (the ones who were too arrogant to wear life vests) will drown.

The myth that this was actually a form of suicide took hold in 1958, when Disney filmmakers aired a documentary that showed a bunch of lemmings jumping to their death. However, contrary to our abiding faith in all Disney productions, this was completely staged! Yes, Disney actually pushed the poor creatures off a cliff while the cameras were rolling, in order to perpetuate the myth that lemmings follow each other blindly unto death! Although completely fraudulent, it’s a good thing they did this with lemmings and not mice, or there would be no Mickey to induce vacationers into Disney theme parks, where people blindly follow each other en masse over a financial cliff.

I said all that to say this: the lemming has become a metaphor for someone who blindly follows the crowd, even into the face of a catastrophe. As I’ve listened to the news and have strived (futilely) to find even a single sheet of toilet paper within a 20-mile radius of my home, the lemming metaphor has popped into my mind more than once. We have been inundated with news about the emerging coronavirus pandemic, and very little of that news has been good. Consequently, we watch each other anxiously, waiting to act on any new piece of information with a hair trigger. For example, I’m reasonably certain that the recent run on toilet paper (which future historians will undoubtedly refer to as “The Great Fecal Hygiene Crisis of 2020” or something like that) was started by one guy in one WalMart in one small town who looked at a shelf of TP and said, overly loudly (as people are apt to do in WalMart) something like, “Gosh, I wonder if I should buy some extra?” Cue the lemmings.

At this point, you might want to invoke the misunderstood and sometimes misused term, “mass hysteria.” This term (also known as “mass psychogenic illness” or “mass sociogenic illness”) refers to the rapid spread of symptoms through a population where there is no viral or bacterial agent to account for those symptoms. So, let’s get this straight from the get-go: to attribute the symptoms of covid-19 (the illness caused by the coronavirus) to “mass hysteria” is a misnomer, because it suggests that the symptoms are not real. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we need to take seriously this threat to global health. Instead, it’s our reaction to that threat that bears some scrutiny.

With this in mind, the term “moral panic” is a more accurate description for the phenomenon that has left you without any toilet paper. This term, as it is currently used, links the collective anxiety of a group (in response to some perceived danger or threat) to social media influences. According to sociologist Stanley Cohen, this happens in stages: first, something (or someone) is identified as a threat to community interests. Next, the threat is depicted in symbolic or overly simplified form by the media. This raises public concern, which in turn provokes a response from authorities or policy makers. Then, the ensuing panic over the issue results in some kind of change within the community…and the next thing you know, there you are, left on the potty, searching desperately for any reasonably soft piece of paper (or other material) within easy reach.

In this way, moral panic is a self-perpetuating problem. Panic is contagious. It spreads like proverbial wildfire, as it has following many media revelations that have called to question our way of life. For example, look what happened to Halloween after the New York Times published a 1970 article about people tampering with unwrapped treats (which had actually happened only once, in a small town in upstate New York). As a result of that single article and subsequent panic, we now have Trunk or Treat…and individually wrapped candies that are infuriatingly difficult to open.

So, how do we avoid contributing to moral panic? How do we keep from making matters worse by panicking over every new piece of information? Well, let’s start with this: don’t panic over every new piece of information. With few exceptions, panic is an irrational response to some stimulus, or a disproportional response to a perceived threat. Jumping to irrational conclusions (often based on erroneous information) propels panic; not the other way around. The panic response is governed by the instinctive, primitive part of your brain, which is often referred to by neuroscientists as the mesencephalon or “reptilian brain.” To avoid panic, one must tame the reptile by engaging the telencephalon, or “thinking” part of the brain. How do we do that?

First, choose not to accept your first instinctive reaction to something fearful. Suppress the primitive part of your brain. After all, it’s that part of your brain that tries to get you to eat with your hands when you’re at a fancy restaurant or pee off your porch when you feel the call of nature (um…okay, maybe that’s just me). Instead, gather more information before deciding how to react. To do that—and this is vitally important—seek out sources of information that the “thinking” part of your brain tells you are trustworthy! For example, when it comes to new information about covid-19, I think we can have total confidence in the CDC. It is an established public health institute that’s been around since 1946 and is crammed full of really, really, really smart people who have built entire careers out of studying the propagation of infectious diseases. Unlike us, they spend every day knee-deep in pathogens, applying their big brains to solving problems just like this one. Yeah, I think we can be absolutely OK with doing whatever they tell us to do. They’re not lemmings, they’re scientists.

In contrast, look with a very skeptical eye on any post or sound bite that is launched by a partisan political group, a corporation that stands to capitalize on the crisis (including popular media), or the guy in your neighborhood that bought all that Purell to re-sell at $75.00 a bottle. They’re not scientists, they’re the Disney filmmakers who are pushing the lemmings over the edge.

Even less trustworthy is your cousin, uncle, brother-in-law, or cousin’s uncle’s brother-in-law who posts on Facebook and considers the shortage of toilet paper to be the prelude to the collapse of civilization which, as he’ll remind you, he has been predicting since the beginning of civilization. As far as modern science can determine, having no TP has a mortality rate of zero. It may be a temporary inconvenience, but it is not the end of the world (in fact, if you own the Charmin company, things are looking pretty good from your perspective, aren’t they?). Let’s keep things in perspective.

Once you’ve decided not to listen to biased, partisan, or un-scientific sources, now do this: don’t listen to anything. Take a break. No, I’m not urging you to ignore reality, repress your feelings, wear rose-colored glasses, or minimize this threat to our collective health. I’m not going to try to pacify you with a cliché (“Don’t worry. We’ve been through all this before. Look at the bubonic plague of the 14th century! We’re still here, aren’t we?”); I’m urging you to momentarily stop the barrage of inflammatory, often conflicting information. Stuck at home? Don’t watch the news, watch SpongeBob. Listen to music (just not the soundtrack to Outbreak). Read a fiction or fantasy novel, for cryin’ out loud…it’s one of those leafy paper things over there on your shelf. Once again, I’m not advocating burying your head in the sand (after all, there are germs there, too!). I’m just urging you to give it a rest and put it in neutral for a little while. Afterwards, you’ll feel energized, refreshed, and ready to think rationally.

Lastly, don’t contribute to the panic by becoming a virus yourself. How do you think they came up with the term “going viral”? Like a virus, information (everything from cute puppy videos to hate speech) gets disseminated when one “host” (electronics consumer) shares with several others who, in turn, share with others…thereby spreading the information (or dis-information) exponentially. This kind of indiscriminate sharing has an almost magical ability to magnify disproportionally the importance of whatever it is you’re sharing. I mean, come on; was “Gangnam Style” really that fascinating? Would it ever have lived for more than a few seconds outside of the petri dish of social media? Yeah, I don’t think so either.

So, when your aforementioned cousin’s uncle’s brother-in-law posts his perception of the impending world cataclysm, please don’t respond, and please don’t “share” with others. Let’s practice some electronic “social distancing.” Don’t contribute to moral panic, and don’t be a lemming or a reptile or a host to an electronic virus. The very fact that you’re reading this blog is proof that you are an intelligent, rational, thinking human being with excellent taste and a critical eye. Time to start acting like one. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to stand here in the grocery store, staring at this shelf of duct tape and brown lunch bags, wondering if they would make an acceptable proxy for toilet tissue.