Transcript of Currents 006: Jim Coan on Our Social Recession

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Jim Coan. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim Rutt: Today’s guest on this Current episode is Jim Coan, a professor in the psychology department, the University of Virginia and director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory.

Jim Coan: Thanks for having me on your show. This sounds really fun.

Jim Rutt: Thanks for being here. It’s been too long since we chatted.

Jim Coan: Indeed.

Jim Rutt: To give a sense of some of the things that Jim works on. Here’s a quote from the website of his lab, “High quality social relationships correspond with longer, happier and healthier lives.” Facts that hold true as far as anyone knows, regardless of geography or culture. Is that the center of your work?

Jim Coan: Yep. That’s sort of the center of gravity, around which all my activities orbit. Many of my are my activities concern the neural mechanisms that link social relationships to enhance health and wellbeing outcomes.

Jim Rutt: Cool. Well, let’s hop in to, if people know who listened to the podcast regularly. In occurrence episode, we typically start with one item in the news or a tweet somebody made, or in this case, a radio appearance, Jim made on CBC radio, where he said, if the isolation, and I’m presuming that’s the isolation. In fact, I know from the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, Jim worries, we might be headed for a social recession. So over to you, Jim, tell us what you meant by social recession, and this radio quote was back around the 1st of April. What has transpired since that make you think differently or the same or more, compared to where you were back in April?

Jim Coan: Well, social recession is analogous or even metaphorical, but if you think about a financial recession, you’re really thinking about a widespread decrease in access to financial resources for a period of time, for whatever reason. What I’m worried about, when I say, social recession, is a widespread decrease in access to social resources. And that concerns me, because social resources are the human bodies original currency.

Jim Rutt: That makes sense. We think about what I’ve read about early stage people, foragers, et cetera. Essentially their life was social interactions. And in fact, one of my favorite theories about the origins of language, may or may not be true, there’s lots of competing theories, is that, one of the driving forces for the evolution of language, may well have been gossip, right? Keeping track of social status amongst a group of, somewhere between 20 and 150 foragers.

Jim Coan: Sure. It goes deeper than that. There are specific functions to specific kinds of communication, all the way from gossiping at the higher levels, down to finger pointing at the sort of lower levels and perhaps more plesiomorphic or evolutionarily old levels. But what really concerns me is that when you look at the prevailing theories, let’s say, half a dozen of them, you find that most people, the consensus is sort of pointing us toward an idea that humans are not bound to a specific terrestrial environment, the way that so many species are. That we have in fact, perhaps due to pronounced climate variability in our early evolutionary development, developed two predominant adaptations.

Jim Coan: One of them is, that we’ve transcended a specific terrestrial environment in favor of any environment, literally any environment that includes other humans. So other humans are the ecological niche that we have adopted as a species, in a process something, like Richard Wrangham and Brian Hare and others, includes self domestication. We domesticated ourselves in order to become hyper cooperative, hyper tolerant of each other, around food sources and other resource sources. And not so dependent upon a specific kind of geography or flora or fauna.

Jim Coan: The other thing that this has resulted in, is a kind of restlessness. So one of the reasons that we populated the globes so rapidly, is that, once we transcended specific terrestrial environments during periods of relative climate stability, we were sort of standing out and tapping our foot going, where’s the change? Where’s the change? So we made the change ourselves by moving our bodies into new places.

Jim Coan: The bottom line is that, our brains and indeed our bodies, right down to the sclera, the whites of our eyes, are functionally adapted to the presence of other humans. They’re designed for the presence of other humans. And they don’t make sense if other humans aren’t around, they’re not useful in any sense, it doesn’t matter whether we have sclera around our pupils. If there are no other people around to pay attention to where our pupils are looking, it doesn’t help us with the terrestrial environment in any way.

Jim Coan: We are arguing, we have argued that evolutionarily our brains and our bodies emerge from the void expecting this environment of other humans. And that, one of the consequences of not finding it, is that we automatically mount a stress response, just the same way that a salamander might mount a stress response if it finds itself in a hot, dry climate suddenly, because it wants a cold damp climate. And it’ll turn right over that. The whole purpose of the stress response is to get it back to where it’s supposed to be.

Jim Rutt: So we know that humans evolved in a social context, in fact, the people who listen to the show often know that I will say, that cooperation is the human super power, that it allows us to have penetrated the world. And then we’d say, well, we’re close to chimps, but chimps don’t cooperate anywhere near like humans, it was something probably around the development of language and other things, allowed us to cooperate way more. And as you point out, we have physical mechanisms, like the whites of the eyes, and many, many others, that show that we are a deeply social. So presumably your argument about social recession has something to do with what happens when the number of social interactions declines. Maybe you could go with that.

Jim Coan: So that gets us to proximal mechanisms of how we cooperate. And this is where things get really, really weird. This is where things get almost science fictiony, for you and perhaps your listeners. And for me, for that matter, because I didn’t necessarily expect what we’ve wound up finding with these studies of, how do you take social support, proximity to a potential cooperative partner and transform that into better health and wellbeing. Our results have surprised us, and I’m going to explain them to you right now, instead of just going on with this dark and stormy night introduction.

Jim Coan: The thing is, we’re not just autonomous units deciding to cooperate in a kind of additive fashion. When humans cooperate, we create synergistic effects, emergent properties that transcend the additive contributions of our mutual cooperation. And that’s really important, because it means that cooperating with another human in terms of labor, creates multiplicative effects. We actually create exponential gains, economies of scale. We say in our labs, parlance. Not only economies of scale in terms of building model Ts, but in terms of hunting, wooly mammoths, and indeed of thinking, remembering, even our own biographies, we create economies of scale by plugging into social networks.

Jim Coan: At the conceptual level, this is super interesting, because it suggests that we are capable of sort of connecting up into units that are qualitatively different than the individual. So group level units, right? We create groups that have a groupishness to them, that is not easily reducible to the individual units within the group. That suggests in turn, it’s not just that cooperation is our superpower, it’s that, cooperation is our lifeblood, cooperation is our hope for survival. We are dependent on cooperation, not merely capable of it. And so again, you can ask, well, what’s the evidence for that? This gets into some really strange territory.

Jim Coan: I’ve just said that, when we create these sort of synergistic or emergent properties, when we’re inhabiting our groups, what does that result in? Well, as any good behavioral ecologist will know, any critter on earth and humans are critters. Pardon me? I hope that’s not offensive to anybody. Humans are critters who have to manage resources, right? When we are making a decision about whether to cooperate or not, or whether to walk up a hill, for example, we are simultaneously making a decision to invest metabolic resources in that activity. And if we’re going to invest, there better be some payoff, and it’s not always obvious what that payoff is, but these are the calculations that we’re making all the time.

Jim Coan: And it turns out, just at the behavioral or perceptual level, that if let’s go back to the hill. If I’m standing, looking at a hill, I see that hill as steeper than it actually is now. That’s while I’m by myself. And why do I do that? And these are all empirical findings, by the way. I do that, because my brain is not so subtly trying to talk me out of walking up the hill, because all else being equal, it costs less in terms of bioenergetic resources to walk up the hill and to not walk up the hill. Right?

Jim Coan: So I see it as steep in proportion to how much motivation I have, to seek whatever’s at the top of the hill. Now I put a heavy backpack on you, about 20% of your body weight. And guess what I find, the hill becomes even steeper in your perception. You see the hill as steeper with the heavy backpack on, than you do without it. And you see it as steeper than it actually is, even at a baseline state. Now, keeping that heavy backpack on, by the way, and we do this again. I want to remind everyone, because the big reveal is coming up, that this is about your brains management, predictive regulation as Peter Sterling calls it, the neuroscientist, predictive regulation of your body’s energetic resources, glucose in the bloodstream, metabolic rate, all of these things. When your heavy backpack is on, your bioenergetic resources are more heavily taxed. You have fewer available to you.

Jim Coan: So you see the hill is steeper. And that means that you’re going to require something even greater at the top of the hill before you’re going to invest all that bioenergetic work in climbing up it. Here’s the big reveal. We put your good friend right next to you. You still have that heavy backpack on, but when your good friend is standing next to you, the hill correct itself, in terms of how you perceive it’s steepness, it looks less steep. And we’ve just framed this whole perceptual finding in terms of the brain’s management of literal bioenergetic resources. How does it take a friend standing next to you and translate that into a budget that assumes more bioenergetic resources? We’re not going to eat our friend, probably done most of us, not going to do that, most of the time.

Jim Coan: Well, this is where we have to talk about how the brain creates a model of the self and what the self is. And this is some neuroscientific work that I published initially back in 2013, we have a big replication coming out with a much larger, more robust and more representative sample. But what we did is, we looked at how the brain made a model of the self when it was under threat, threat of mild electric shock and how the brain made a model and responded when we put a friend under threat of shock and then how the brain responded when we put a stranger under threat of shock.

Jim Coan: And what we found, is that, when we put a friend under threat, your brain creates a response and a model of self that looks almost identical to the one it creates when we put you yourself under threat, but that’s not true for a stranger at all. What we find in short, is that, the self, which is a neural activity, that the brain engages in, and it’s not a thing, you can’t take it out of the head and weigh it and bounce it like a basketball. The self is an activity. We self as a verb, we engage in selfing. And as we construct that sense of self, that subjective sense of self that we use like a measuring device to decide how many resources we have available to us, to engage with the world, we include our social networks in that calculation.

Jim Coan: We include our social networks indeed in that representation of what ourself is and contains. If you look in literature and song, lyrics from the 1970s, if you look at the way children talk about themselves, we have documented all of these things in various writings. People will say, when they’re around their loved one, they feel larger. They feel more powerful, they feel taller. And what we’re arguing, is that the brain is in fact, giving them that literal perception, much the same way that a friend standing next to you alters your perception of the steepness of a hill.

Jim Coan: So, extrapolate this out to our fear, my fear, at least, of social recession. During the best of times, when we’re around a rich social network, which I will remind you, we think the brain assumes is going to be there as it budgets it’s energetic resources in its daily activities. Under normal circumstances, we’re relatively calm. We we tend to budget more resources toward things like the immune system, growing hair, repairing tissue, just dealing with our proverbial leaky roofs of our bodies.

Jim Coan: And thinking about things like composing operas, writing books, making art, thinking of new ways to put an addition onto your house, instead of devoting those cognitive resources to dealing with getting food or avoiding danger. But when we’re apart from those social resources, our brains blood flows more to those regions that tend to deal with emergencies. And we tend to alter our body’s energetic budget, such that, we’re putting more glucose into the bloodstream instead of storing it in glycogen and leveraging it to repairing body tissue and boosting our immune system. And that’s because, we have figured out when we’re alone, that we have fewer social resources to draw from. Our self has contracted and we’re going to have to budget accordingly. We’re going to either have to do less stuff, or we’re going to have to pay more for whatever we do.

Jim Rutt: It’s interesting. It makes a lot of sense when I think about it, we’ve evolved, as we certainly have in this deep social interactive network, that’s really an extended part of ourself and who we are. If we detect that we don’t have those resources, it sounds like it can happen, it does happen unconsciously. It’s just our perception of where we’re situated, instead of being able to apply our bodily energetics to the normal housekeeping, et cetera. It makes sense that we’d go into something a vigilance mode, here I am away from my troop of fellow apes and something is wrong. Something is up, this is not business as usual. And it would make sense to actually have a separate state for that kind of situation. Is that a reasonable way of framing that?

Jim Coan: I think so. But I would want to keep it focused as much as we can, on the management of bioenergetic resources, because this is really key. What you find when you’re alone, what your brain finds. And this is often implicit, as you suggested, it’s often outside of subjective awareness, your brain just budgets your body’s resources differently, right? So it assumes access to fewer resources when you’re by yourself.

Jim Coan: And that means you have to decide differently about what kind of behaviors to engage in, because all behavior is costly, right? So if you’re going to go up that hill, that steep hill, with that heavy backpack on, if you had your friend with you, well, then maybe there’s a cupcake at the top, and that’s sufficient motivation to go up to the top. Because you’re friends with you, you’ve got extra energy, but if your friend’s not with you, you’re going to need 12 cupcakes at the top to motivate you to walk up that hill. Right?

Jim Coan: So that’s one thing. But the other thing is, if you look at it from the other perspective, chances are, the number of cupcakes on the top of the hill hasn’t changed. So what does that mean? You’re just not going to go up that hill. So let’s move out of metaphor zone and back into real life. What does that look like? That looks lying in bed, lying around the house, not going out. That looks like depression. In fact, that is depression. When you start going through long periods of adjusting to a world in which you have fewer resources, everything that you do looks like the proverbial steeper hill.

Jim Coan: It’s harder to go to the store. It’s harder to put on your shoes. It’s harder to get up out of bed. It’s harder to go anywhere. Do anything. Now imagine that you are, and I don’t have to imagine this very hard. Imagine that you are a young parent, you’ve got a seven year old and a nine year old at home, for example, as I do, and you’ve got a homeschool, so you’ve lost the social resource of the schools and daycare. You’ve got your job. You’ve got no access or limited access to friends, grandparents, babysitters. It’s hard for a lot of people to do anything but sleep.

Jim Rutt: Okay. I’m getting it. This is very interesting. So let me see if I can rephrase it. This is one of the things I try to do on the show quite a bit. And then you tell me whether I’m missing the essentials or not. That we pick up implicit signal from our social context, which determines, or which drives deep level, energetic, metabolic processes in our brain, such that we have more glucose in our blood and less of it’s used for bodily restorative things. Which changes how our brain/emotional states evaluate opportunity versus costs, the desire or motivation to climb up the hill, to get one a cupcake. In such a way that systematically we are in a state that is not different than being depressed. In fact, maybe that is what being depressed is. Is that pretty close to the story, in two sentences?

Jim Coan: That’s the story. That’s the basic story. So, we’ll either be depressed and lie around and try not to spend those metabolic resources, so we can devote as many of them as possible to taking minimal care of our bodies or we’ll mount a full on stress response so that we have enough energy to get out into the world and do things, and we’ll subject our bodies to what, in our lab, we call physiological weathering, where are constantly on a slow drip kind of fashion, moving through the world without sufficiently protecting ourselves from infection or devoting ourselves our resources to taking care of our bodies. So, by weathering, we slowly deteriorate and that starts affecting our health. This is why people under chronic stress, not only can become depressed and anxious, but in fact are likely to get sick.

Jim Coan: In fact, there’s a finding, you may not know, you may know this, because you have an interest in this area, I know. The more socially isolated you are, the more likely you are to die of anything at all, at any time, no matter where you live or what culture you inhabit. It is the most deadly thing that can happen to you just about, except for maybe a boulder falling on your head. It’s a very bad thing to be suddenly isolated, with a little asterisk, and that asterisk is involuntarily. There are few things, more wonderful and soothing and beautiful than voluntary isolation. When you have the option to go and reconnect with your social group, whenever you want, because social groups are also an investment, and then you can rest from that investment. But when it’s involuntary, you are screwed.

Jim Rutt: Interesting. And that’s where we’re at, for sure. Right?

Jim Coan: Yes.

Jim Rutt: What would we expect to see as implications or ramifications or second order, next order effects from this period of involuntary separation from our social context?

Jim Coan: Well, one of the things that I worry most about, is that, when you are overtaxed in this way, by involuntary isolation, one of the regions of the brain that is going to be fatigued or slowly disinvested in, is your prefrontal cortex, your ability to think abstractly, plan, contingencies, that make sense, et cetera. In effect you get dumber, right when we should not get dumber, this is a bad time for all of us to get dumber. But that’s one of the things that we can expect from long periods of social isolation. People, when they talk about depression, one of the symptoms of depression is cognitive difficulties, problems with memory and so forth. This is sort of thing we can expect from social isolation as well.

Jim Rutt: Interesting. Let’s move on from that a little bit. That’s very good and very deep, very powerful level of analysis. I’m curious, what you think about, that perhaps unconscious rejection of this phenomena of social isolation and the resultant depression or quasi depression, is what may be driving this earlier than is probably good from a public health perspective, reopening. People have an absolute live beto to escape this state of social isolation. And if we add to it, your hypothesis that, prefrontal cortex functioning has also been reduced, and the PFC is extremely important for planning, particularly things that require multiple steps.

Jim Rutt: And so, prefrontal cortex functioning is decreased, the ability to make optimal trade offs between continuing social isolation, even with some pain and some negatives and breaking social isolation, so as to relieve yourself of this low level aggravating depression, and that may be what’s one of the main driving factors to this perhaps to rapid reopening.

Jim Coan: I think that’s absolutely the case. I think it’s absolutely the case. And this is where, suddenly, there’s a huge role for culture and social norms, right? Because if your culture is one that’s going to emphasize more prosocial behavior, or you have through whatever media of communication, the TV, the newspaper, the internet, just shouting across the street at a socially distance safe space. If you know that your broad social community is also doing what you’re doing, then it’s going to be easier for you to do it, because it’s going to encode a little bit of that, I’m part of my group, back into your mind. Right.

Jim Coan: But if your group is disposed or your culture is disposed to say, fuck this, I don’t believe the government, if you’re more of individualistic culture, I don’t really like that term, but it’ll serve for now. Like we have in the US, I like the old McLuhan paranoid culture. I think that was McLuhan. Then you’re going to be a lot more agreeable with just going out and risking infection. Or you might not even realize that you are risking infection. You’ll just say, this is all bullshit.

Jim Coan: And you’re going to have a harder time resisting that, because it’s going to feel like an opportunity cost to your brain to stay home and remain isolated. This a little bit of a tangent, but that’s what the subjective experience of mental fatigue literally is. Mental fatigue is not literally a decrease in energy in your brain. Mental fatigue is the signal that you get subjectively from your brain, that whatever it is you’re doing, you’d rather be doing something else.

Jim Rutt: That makes a lot of sense. Let’s move on to adjacent topic, which I’m going to call Zoom culture. We all know that we’re doing, a lot of people, at least are doing a lot more virtual interaction. And I will say, as we talked about in the pregame talk, a little bit, I’m busier than I’ve ever been, at least in the last 19 years, since I retired from my business career. And most of that is on Zoom. I probably do 20 Zooms a week now, up from maybe 10.

Jim Coan: Jesus.

Jim Rutt: … prior to the pandemic, and personally it works for me. I don’t find it draining the way some people report, et cetera. And it may just be my own quirk of quite extroverted personality. But I like Zoom culture. It’s essentially replaced for me, much of which I gave up and a lot more phone calls, especially to my closest friends and my brothers and my cousins and my nephews and this and that. But again, I may well be an outlier. I know that I am in many ways. Give us your thoughts from your scientific perspective of, to what degrees Zoom culture is a reasonable substitute or a partial substitute, or may actually may even make things worse. I’d love to get the neuroscience perspective on this.

Jim Coan: Well, again, I appeal to resources. So how hard is whatever task you’re trying to accomplish, when you’re using Zoom versus when you’re in person. Right? And if the task that you’re trying to accomplish is to communicate simple messages, to hundreds of people, as in, one of these big webinars or whatever, then clearly Zoom is super easy, right? And so, it’s going to feel easier, because it is easier, right. But if the task is to understand and implicitly react to subtle nonverbals as you interact with your staff or your boss, or, public official or whatever it is, then Zoom is going to make it harder. Because Zoom is simply, it’s like the MP3 file of communication, right? It’s just taken out a lot, it’s digital, and it’s reduced and compressed digital.

Jim Coan: We are designed for analog, right? That analog creates way more information. And our brains are set up to, one, respond to that information, and two, wonder where the hell that information is, if it’s not available. That sort of wondering, creates an extra process, that the brain doesn’t want to engage in, right? You don’t want to spend more, you always want to spend less. So for a lot of people, not you Jim, but for a lot of people, Zoom communications, because they lack a lot of that essential implicit information, they create an extra cognitive process that people have to engage in to try and figure out, what they’re communicating and what’s being communicated to them. Now, if you add in, here’s a simple way to understand this, add in the little Zoom window that shows you, right?

Jim Coan: That reflects you. And now you’ve added yet another cognitive process, because you’ve got a self monitoring load that you don’t have under ordinary analog communication circumstances. This is why I think Zoom, it’s useful for certain kinds of projects. I use it, and I’ve even found it helpful in a lot of ways, teaching courses, for example, now I know all the names of my students, because they’re printed in front of me. But over the long haul, the returns I’ve said, in at least one interview elsewhere, are going to be diminishing. And they’re going to be diminishing in just the kind of economic curve that you might think of, when you think of diminishing returns.

Jim Rutt: Let me push back on that, just a little bit. I’ve been watching myself as I become a more of a Zoomer. And just to give you a sense of my own uses of Zoom, let’s say I do 20 Zooms a week, about 15, or one-on-ones, communications with people who reach out to me through, having heard my podcast or are active on my Facebook groups, Rally Point Alpha and the game B group, or lots of old friends, just pairwise interactions. And those are pretty good. And then the most interesting ones are three or four small group conversations a week, somewhere between four and eight people. And those seem to go well, and then one a week, or maybe two of these large group webinars, which I find, okay, frankly, in the same way that going to big scientific meetings are just okay. Right.

Jim Rutt: That the real meet, at a scientific meeting, to me is the conversation in the hallway and having a beer afterwards, rather than the presentations. I find the same effect from Zoom. But, here’s where I push back a little bit. As I said, I’ve been a Zoomer now, with a significant amount of my interactions with the world, but less than currently for a couple of years. And I found that I’ve developed, we might call procedural memories or now unloaded tasks, that help me make Zoom better. You mentioned one, when people ask me, how do you use Zoom without going insane? I say the first thing is never, never look at that little box with you in it.

Jim Rutt: It’s interesting that I discovered more or less intuitively, what you could explain from a neuro and body energy perspective, which is, looking at your own little box in Zoom, makes you do some processing that’s totally useless, in fact it may well be negative, right? We don’t have that experience in the real world, and why the hell would we want to do it now? So don’t do that. The other thing I have noticed, particularly in these small groups, which to me are more difficult to cognitively process than the pairwise, the pairwise I look at as, a much augmented form of a phone call, basically.

Jim Rutt: So that is something we’re already know how to do, is do long phone calls with our friends and people that want to talk to us. And this is just a better way of doing phone calls, but the small group part, we really have to read body language and whose turn it is to talk and all those sorts of things. I find that I am now focusing on people’s bodily motions, way more than I used to. Looking at their hands, are their hands calm on their desk, or are their hands fidgeting around and they’re spreading and opening their fingers. Which I think I’m reading now, is that, they feel it’s their turn to talk, right.

Jim Rutt: Are they leaning into the camera and the mic, or are they sitting back with their arms crossed? And I probably wasn’t doing that very much, or at least as much on March 1st, as I am doing now. So I think that it is possible to learn, to build unconscious. So therefore relatively unloaded cognitive processes that allow one to extract a lot, though not all, of the cues we get, let’s focus particularly on the small group thing, in face to face from Zoom. And I’m finding that the small groups are working better now than they were three months ago.

Jim Coan: I think we’re all getting better at it. But I will say that, my prediction, if I could borrow the eyes of God for a little while to look at some of your Zoom interactions, would be that, it’s not just you that’s noticing the finger movements and body postures of your conversation partners, but it’s also your conversation partners, who are spending more time noticing their own body postures and their finger movements and et cetera. And that, not to get too fancy, but, anytime you have a conversation, especially as the conversation moves on, you start creating a little mini dynamical system, right? And so, all of that is going to work it’s way in. The system itself is going to have a kind of cognitive load that I worry about. Now, I could be wrong. I’m totally speculating there.

Jim Coan: And I would also say, that I have found certain activities to be remarkably easier with Zoom. And this is something that I’m going to remember, as things, if things ever get back to normal. So for example, one of the things I spend a lot of my time doing, is editing papers with grad students. Everybody hates that. Students hate it. I hate it. We pass manuscripts back and forth. They get lost. What version is it? When we sit together in a room, it feels awkward to sit, side by side, looking at a screen together, but somehow doing a Zoom conversation and sharing the screen and looking at the document at the same time, it’s just magical.

Jim Coan: I do it every day now and find it actually enjoyable, whereas before I used to find it horrible. So I don’t know, I haven’t thought carefully about why that is, but I’ll grant you, that is one area that seems like Zoom has made more efficient, and if I’m right about all the stuff we’ve been talking about today, efficiency is the name of the game.

Jim Rutt: That makes of course a lot of sense. If evolution is what brought us to where we’re at, then shocking. I actually believe in evolution, unlike half of Americans. Then energetics has got to be one of the lower level drivers of evolution. We all know the real payoff is, did you successfully reproduce? And everything else is secondary to that, but energetics has got to be a very big supporting pylon in that structure. Let’s move on to our last topic, which is a recent tweet from you, a retweet of a New York times article. And I think this plays into a lot of what we’re talking about, though in a somewhat different domain.

Jim Rutt: And the title of the article was, expecting students to play it safe if colleges reopen, is a fantasy. And the subtitle of the article was, safety plans, border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of COVID-19 among students, faculty, and staff. And this has got to be pretty important in your life at a major university that either, I don’t even know what UVA is doing, but react to that.

Jim Coan: Well, geez, man. Look, we’re all under all this cognitive load, because we’ve been socially isolated for months. So under the best circumstances, none of us is doing our best work right now. Maybe you are, maybe you’re doing your best work. I don’t want to speak for everybody, but most people are not. And also under the best circumstances, people who are in the developmental phase of their life, that we call late adolescents, are not great decision makers by and large. Insurance companies know this very well. And we don’t know this well enough as a society to keep people from driving, for example, until they’re 30. Just what I’d to do. Not really, but let them vote at 16, but don’t let them drive until they’re 30.

Jim Coan: The thing is, there’s also this terrifying reality that institutions like UVA are facing, which is just unfathomable hits in financial resources. Millions of dollars per semester, that translate to support staff jobs, people’s livelihoods, the ability to institutionally support research and teaching. It goes on and on, to keep the lights on. And so, people responsible for those kinds of problems are in a state of near constant panic, trying to figure out how to get the proverbial lights back on. There’s an incentive for them not to think as carefully about the transmission risk. Right?

Jim Coan: Meanwhile, they’re already getting a little bit dumber if I’m right. And certainly the kids are getting dumber. We’re all sort of going, sure, these college students can come back and monitor their own health behavior well enough and so forth, just as well as they can keep each other from getting pregnant and from crashing cars.

Jim Rutt: Drinking too much on Saturday night.

Jim Coan: Yeah. Now, I could be giving them too little credit. Maybe I am, but I don’t think I am. And also when I factor in the incentive that the power structure in the administration here and elsewhere has to, their financial commitments to reopen. Then it seems to me, there’s a lot of pressure to make the wrong decision here. There’s also a lot of pressure to discount the cost of those decisions for populations outside the student population, not just faculty, but custodial staff, the local community that has nothing to do with the university, many of whom are highly vulnerable, aging, or African-American, these are groups that we know are at higher risk. So, we’re not just playing with undergraduate lives here or undergraduate infect infection rates. That’s my soap box.

Jim Rutt: I think you hit it exactly on the head, that we’re in an addled state. We have crushing financial imperatives, not just for institutions like the university of Virginia, but for every working person. And then we have the moral, social network effects, right? Truthfully, if one were Ayn Randian crazed individualist, you could say, we each take the risk and reward for ourselves, but that is not true. As you point out, we’re all connected on a social network and someone who decides to expose themselves to more risk is actually increasing the risk for lots of people around them, many people who they don’t even know, in the second, third order social network.

Jim Coan: That’s right.

Jim Rutt: We got ourselves quite a conundrum here. We’re not going to try to solve it today. And I want to thank you, Jim, for an extraordinarily interesting deep and perceptive conversation.

Jim Coan: Thank you, Jim. I had a great time.

Jim Rutt: It really was. It was good.

Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller