Fear and Zero Sum Bias



What do toilet paper, soap and free weights all have in common? Nothing – except that they have become targets of a manner of thinking that displays how out of control most of us feel during the current pandemic.

Although things are improving slightly, remember those bare shelves in your local store when the pandemic hit? Have you stopped to consider how illogical the run on toilet paper was, given that COVID-19 is a respiratory illness? Yet there most of us were, evading the TP-coveting hoards hoping a single 4-pack would still be there for us. If the world ended today, future archeologists would be stymied by the shrines Americans built to Charmin and Cottonelle, among others.

Why were some items hit so unnecessarily hard? The answer is found in the psychological theory of Zero Sum Bias. During a time of fear when people feel out of control, many of us perceive that readily available items are limited valuable resources; and if we don’t get as much of them as we can, we will lose, others will win and we will suffer as a result. In this false view, we stockpile so that others will not get what we perceive we need. The stockpiling leads to shortages that then confirm our false perceptions, and we amass more of those items. This leads to greater shortages, and the cycle becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I don’t fault anyone from obtaining resources they truly need. What concerns me about COVID-19 hoarding is that some appear to have lost sight of love of neighbor, focusing instead entirely upon themselves. A quick viewing of the evening news indicates the consequences of this type of thinking. We no longer appear to be a country of “We the people,’ but instead the focus has shifted to “Me the person.” The Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously coined a phrase in contrast with the Golden Rule, “My neighbor is Hell.” Our society seems to be moving beyond this to a frightening pandemic of ambivalence — many simply fail to even regard the needs of others.

Jesus calls us to “love our neighbor as ourselves” (Mt. 22:39); so what are we, the Church, doing to combat the rampant selfishness we see around us? Much of what has been stockpiled has largely been comfort items, not necessities. I am certainly not innocent in this either, grabbing items not out of need, but fear. Fear: It seems much comes down to that one emotion, and the Scriptures repeatedly warn us against giving into it (see Deuteronomy 31:8, Isiah 43:1, 1 John 4:18, etc.).

I have frequently used the words of Scottish philosopher, John MacMurray, who urged people to move beyond what he termed “illusory religion” to real faith. Illusory religion sees fearful situations thusly, “Fear not; trust in God, and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.” This is, obviously false: Good people suffer and die every day; no one is promised a life without suffering and death. Instead, MacMurray urged us to consider a healthier response to fear: “Fear not; the things you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of” (https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/true-religion/).

We may lose jobs, health, wealth, security or even life; yet these things are not the end. Our resting place is with the Lord, and nothing fearful the world can throw at us changes the victory we have in Jesus. Does this alleviate pain? No; we’re not Pollyannaish — pain hurts, loss is fearful and death still appears to be an end of our existence. Yet time and time again, Jesus reminds us, “Be not afraid.”

In these troubling times, the things we fear are likely to occur. But these are nothing of which to be afraid as long as despair doesn’t lead us to lose our souls. Stockpiling soap, toilet paper or any number of other things will not add a single day to our lives. Abandoning ourselves to the Lord, trusting in His overwhelming love and gracious providence – this is all that matters. Fear will be relentless as it tries to convince us otherwise. Be not afraid: God is never in short supply.