A virus, such as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is biological invader. Invisible to the naked eye, it floats through the air from body to body, attacking our cells, stealing our breath, and turning any convenient set of human lungs into an alien manufacturing plant for more invaders. This is a biological reality. But humans, as a species, can modify the biological reality we live in using a powerful, social tool: storytelling. We create compelling narratives that influence what we believe and how we act. Scientists call this ability of ours social reality.
An example of social reality is money, which is a completely made-up story that little pieces of paper and metal have value and can be traded for goods and services. Money is real only because a large group of humans agree it’s real. And yet, it’s so real that people sometimes kill each other over it.
Another example is the idea of a country. We draw imaginary lines in the physical world and call them borders. We call people within those borders “citizens” and other people “foreigners” who aren’t allowed to cross our imaginary lines without permission. Countries and citizenship are completely made up, but we live our lives by them. (Unless we change our collective minds. That’s called a revolution.)
Humans are the only animals who create reality through narrative. We make things up, agree on them as a group, behave accordingly, and they become real. Social reality is a superpower of any human brain that coordinates with other human brains.
Right now, the United States has a serious social-reality problem in the battle against COVID-19. We have two competing narratives about the virus. Both have serious repercussions for the biological reality of how the virus spreads, whom it infects, and maybe even who lives and who dies.
The first COVID-19 narrative is a familiar one found in many cultures: the individual hero. In this story line, each of us is an individual patriot in an ailing and dangerous world. It’s like the 2010 post-apocalyptic film The Book of Eli, in which a brave hero (played by Denzel Washington) battles against the blight that has destroyed civilization, which requires him to also pit his blade against fanatics, cannibals, and roving bands of marauders as he attempts to preserve essential ideals.
In the lone hero narrative, each of us is under attack, not just by a virus but also by other people who want to limit our individual rights and freedoms. We see this narrative come to life in the actions of anti-mask protesters across the United States. We hear stories of individuals who were asked to wear masks inside of stores or restaurants or airplanes, and who responded by attacking employees, flashing a gun, or even taking aim and firing. In this social reality, the hero preserves personal freedom at any cost.
The other social reality during this pandemic springs from a different narrative — “All for one, and one for all.” This story line says that we’re stuck in a crisis together, battling a common enemy. Think of the 2013 science fiction movie Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro, where the Earth is menaced by massive sea monsters, and all of humanity bands together to build giant robots to vanquish the destructive creatures. And humanity prevails.
We see the second, more collaborative narrative take shape when tennis star Serena Williams donates over four million face masks to schools. We learn about bioengineer Manu Prakash of Stanford University, who helped invent a small, inexpensive coupling device that turns a scuba mask into personal protective gear for health workers. And let’s not overlook Billie Jordan, a ninety-three-year-old retiree in Tallassee, Alabama, who sewed over 900 face masks and gave them out for free. In this social reality, we needn’t do anything as complicated as building giant robots. We just have to wear masks and be thoughtful about our biological residue. We are all on Team Human, fighting the same foe, battling for our lives and the lives of our fellow citizens.
The narrative of the solitary hero, valiantly fighting to preserve American freedoms, is a perfectly viable story line in many cases. (Even though Eli needed rescuing at times.) But these freedoms come with a price, and that price is responsibility, both for our own actions and for the impact of our actions on others. In a pandemic, the more effective narrative to safeguard individual health is to pitch in and take some responsibility for the health of others. The individual patriot narrative is more likely to get a hero killed and contribute, even indirectly, to the sickness and deaths of other people. A virus doesn’t care about individual freedom, or anything at all. It just impersonally and methodically infects every human it can.
Every hero needs a villain. Right now, the villain is not Democrats or Republicans. Not scientists. Not politicians. And certainly not our friends and neighbors and store clerks and flight attendants who are covering up their mouths and noses. The villain is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And the best way to fight that virus — and win — is together.
[This article is Part 1 of 3 on the topic of social reality. In Part 2, we explore how social reality not only influences how we act, but also affects our physical health and even shapes our biological evolution as a species.]