Why are there so many anti-lockdown protests?

And how can people be anti-masks and anti-vaccine?

Image source: The Guardian

Recently there have been a lot of protests against lockdowns in Europe. Many of the protesters had slogans and demands that implied the lockdowns were a conspiracy to restrict their freedom and harm them. They also had anti-mask slogans. And protested against vaccination. They boycotted hospitals calling ‘Stop the assassins’. They threw objects and attacked the police. In many cases it degenerated into violence and vandalism.

Why do people do this?

From the outside it looks irrational. They are protesting against measures that help stop the pandemic. Lockdowns now would curb rising cases. They gain time for vaccination to take place. They increase how many people will not die from COVID-19.

Our ancient survival instincts drive us to do things that decrease our survival now.

Outrage of the protesters, and making fun of them, is easy and pleasant. It feels good to categorize them as stupid, manipulated, low-education, rednecks, extremists. It makes you feel superior because you know better.

But this disdain explains nothing.

Outrage prompts easy but false explanations. It rests on the assumption that there are different categories of people. Some are better, some are worse. You get to feel good because you are not in the bad category.

But that’s not true.

Every mob is made up of normal people like you and me. Every cult is formed with people like you and me. Every fascist regime is composed of mostly people like you and me.

Depending on circumstances, we can all adopt unreasonable, absurd beliefs.

You might point out these protests are supported by far-right and nationalist groups that gain political power as a result. There might be other groups supporting the protests that stand to gain. This is true. But it is not a complete explanation. These groups could not create such social movements from nothing. They are stoking a fire that was already burning.

Why do people protest lockdown, masks and vaccines?

Because of unconscious programs for survival.

Most of Homo Sapiens history was in the Paleolithic. We were hunter-gatherers in the wilderness. The environment was not as safe as it is now. It was dangerous and unforgiving. One wrong move could be deadly.

We developed an unconscious model of the world to maximize our survival chances in this Paleolithic environment. This model has powerful biases that were advantageous in the past, but do not work well in the modern era. Our unconscious model has not changed according to the world. At a conscious, rational level we understand we are living in safe homes, with no predators, with access to practically infinite food and shelter. But the unconscious still believes we are in the wild savannah.

Biases of the unconscious model determine our decisions in the present. We think we act according to the present environment. But in reality our actions are driven by a mixture of superficial perception of the present and assumptions deep-rooted in the past.

Such unconscious biases are direct causes for the current protests: [natural: need for control] + [natural: change is dangerous] + [natural: need for bright future]

And they are also fueled by present pragmatic interests in securing their own livelihood.

These unconscious biases are made possible by the context of fractured reality in which we live. This comes from [modern: distrust in everything] + [natural: obsolete learning mechanisms].

Let’s take them one at a time.

[natural: need for control]

We need to feel in control of our own fate. This is a deep survival instinct.

It makes sense. If you are not in control, it means you are at risk and can do nothing about it.

As a modern society we are in the process of adjusting to feeling less in control as individuals than in the past. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had more (perceived) control over their own fate. They did not have hierarchical social structures. Rather they had egalitarian structures. Each member was responsible for his or her own decisions and actions. They could not push responsibility to their ‘boss’ or ‘superior’.

This need for control remains in us at present. We have adapted to less control than our ancestors. At work many have to do what the boss tells them. In the world we perceive events that we cannot control. But we chafe at this lack of control. When it gets too much, we act out trying to attain more control. Or the perception of control.

Now look at the pandemic from this lens of control. It is an event over which you and I had no control. It could have been prevented or stopped at the onset, but only by government, not by individuals. Then individuals had to watch as it spread more and more, being powerless to do anything about it.

As individuals we tried to gain some measure of control for ourselves and our family through preventive measures. But there is no official effective method of preventing COVID-19 except masks, hygiene and social distancing. There is no individual treatment. Rather if you have it, you need to relinquish control to the medical profession and follow their instructions.

On top of the COVID lack of control, there is lack of control over the government measures around the pandemic. Individuals’ control over their lives is taken away in the fight against COVID-19. It is not the restrictions themselves that hurt, but the fact that people had no say over them.

This stripping of individual control has been going on for more than a year now. This year has also been one of exceptional uncertainty. This uncertainty is danger at an unconscious level. Danger increases the individual’s need to gain control in an effort to protect himself.

The protesters don’t really care that much about curfews. They care about not having control over their own lives.

The effect? People have been doing many crazy things to regain control. Conspiracy theories are a way to gain the perception of control because you decide the narrative you believe. Quack cures for COVID-19 are a way to gain perceived control over the virus. Rebelling against restrictions is a way to regain control over your life.

These protests are the natural culmination of a year of uncertainty and lack of control. The protesters don’t really care that much about curfews. They care about not having control over their own lives.

Clear evidence in this regard comes from countries with the most success in dealing with the virus. New Zealand succeeded in controlling COVID-19 and preventing much of its death-toll. It did so through early decisive restrictions that prevented the initial spread. Most governments did not take such decisive actions because they were afraid of the population’s rejection and disobedience. The New Zealand government avoided this problem through effective communication. Their messaging was frequent, clear, consistent. And it was not one-directional. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern held press conference, but she also did Facebook Live-s and responded to people’s questions and comments. Instead of feeling as powerless victims, people felt as collaborators fighting against a common enemy: the pandemic. This prevented feelings of lack of control. People willingly conformed to the restrictions because they felt it was their best choice.

Protests now are because people do not feel it is their choice. They are the result of governments’ failure to open a dialogue with their citizens. But they are also the result of demolished hope.

[natural: need for bright future]

The important thing, is to believe in a better future. Ryan Babel

We need to believe in a bright future. The belief the future is worse than the present creates anxiety. This is because it implies reduced survival chances. Anxiety is the driver to push you to improve these chances. So whenever we don’t see a bright future, we become anxious and try to change this.

After so many months of pandemic crisis, people recently started having hope. Vaccines were here. Governments had started vaccinating the population for several months now. Hope was on the horizon. Governments were eager to gain some goodwill and fueled this hope.

But then cases started rising again. Maybe people and authorities got careless thinking it will end soon. Maybe it’s because of the new variants which are more infectious.

Many governments in Europe responded by imposing new lockdown measures. They want to contain the spread. Win more time for the vaccinations to take place.

But at an individual level, for many this came as hope given, and then taken away. Many protesters probably had a hard time during the pandemic. Maybe they were isolated. They put up with the hardships. Now they got hope. They finally got a brighter future. Only for it to be taken away.

The new lockdowns are not terrible in themselves. They are terrible because they kill hope. Protesters cannot accept that. They are protesting because they want their hope back.

[natural: change is hard]

We hate change. We dread any kind of change, even ones that are positive. Why? Because change was danger. There is always a risk associated with change.

Because through most of our history, risks could be deadly, we have developed a bias towards risk aversion. When we analyze the potential benefits and the risks of an event, we put more weight on the risks. This risk aversion makes us unconsciously reluctant to change.

What does this have to do with the protests? Obviously the new lockdown measures are changes. They are clearly unpleasant changes. It’s natural for people to dislike them. But I think it is deeper than that.

We have surpassed a time milestone. It has been over a year of pandemic. Over a year of our lifestyle being disrupted. We have been living in a constant change, and with the specter of more unknown change coming. One year is a long time in our monkey perception. It signifies that this crisis is not a temporary perturbation, but will likely cause more permanent change.

That’s scary.

I would guess that many protesters are people who want life to ‘go back to normal’ aka how it was before the pandemic. But one year of continuous pandemic is forcing them to confront the notion that things might never go back to normal. They are struggling with the probability life will change even after COVID-19 stops being such a crisis.

They are protesting the change in their lifestyle. They are protesting because they don’t want it to change, but are powerless to do anything about it.

Pragmatic causes

Image source

From the pictures and comments, it looks like many of the protesters are blue-collar workers. I don’t know if this is true. Maybe they are not, and this is just a story that fits our stereotypes.

But it would make sense for the people protesting to be the ones that were most affected. New lockdowns might be the death blow to small businesses that depend on physical presence. They might causes more job insecurity for blue-collar workers in general.

I am a white-collar worker. I have taken advantage of the pandemic to move to the mountains and work remote. This has been an incredible net win for me. Most people who had the possibility to work remote have had at least partial benefit from this situation. For us, a new curfew is at most a nuisance. Maybe we have to make an effort to do grocery shopping earlier. But it’s no big deal.

The situation is different for people who could not work remote or with businesses that depended on physical presence. Many have lost their jobs permanently, or temporarily. Many are struggling to survive with their savings until restrictions are lifted.

When you are making ends meat with meager savings, praying for when restrictions are lifted so you can start earning again, the news of new lockdowns is dramatic. It becomes a risk to your livelihood, to your survival. Of course you will protest. How can you not? It is one of your few weapons to fight against your perceived demise.

Fractured reality
[modern: distrust in everything] + [natural: obsolete learning mechanisms]

Protests against lockdowns, against masks, against vaccines happen because many protesters arrive at the beliefs that these are harmful. This happens because we live in an increasingly fractured reality. Our views on the world are becoming more and more individual and divergent.

This is a problem much larger than the current protests. It might be the core problem of our times. We are becoming increasingly unable to agree on the truth. This has consequences in all areas of our lives from health to politics. It impedes communication, it promotes harmful decisions and it spurs hate.

This fracturing of reality has many causes.

We presume anything new is false, until proven truthful.

One important cause is our modern distrust in everything. We are all skeptics. This rejection of new information is a self-defense mechanism. There is simply too much information coming at us in the modern world. It exceeds our capacity to process and evaluate. Remember we evolved in a natural environment of a few dozen people, where little changed from day to day. Information was scarce. Now information is overflowing. A torrent that we need to dam or it drowns us.

The defense is to treat all information that contradicts our existing model with the assumption of falsehood. We presume anything new is false, until proven truthful.

This would be a great strategy to get to the truth.

But it stumbles when it comes to our methods of determining what is truthful or not. These methods are our innate ways of learning. What is learning? It is incorporating new information into your model of the world. At the core, it is about determining what is true about the world.

Our criteria for what is truthful evolved in the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer world. They are personal experience, social consensus, authority and data. Our of these four data is the most reliable by far. We know personal experience, social consensus and authority are often wrong. People used to sacrifice other people to imaginary gods because social consensus and authority said it was the best thing to do.

But at an individual level, we are not good with data. It is by far the least persuasive argument for our monkey unconscious. Much less persuasive than the other three.

COVID-19 has been a great example of this. Data from clinical studies shows that COVID vaccines have extremely rare side-effects. But your colleague has an aunt who heard of someone who died after getting the vaccine. Your colleague also said she felt really sick after the first dose, and she does not want to do the second one. An influencer on Instagram just posted that vaccines are dangerous. What do you believe? Most people who have started at least doubting the safety of vaccines. Some will go directly to believing they are dangerous. This happens despite the fact that the evidence is lacking. You have three cases of unlikely harm compared to the thousands in the clinical trials. But they have much more weight to your monkey brain because they are people you know and have authority (even if it is Instagram influencer authority).

Why do we put such little stock on data? Because it is very hard to process. You have to use your PreFrontal Cortex to understand probabilities, correlation, representative sample, error margin, methodology. Not to mention determining whether there is a causal relationship or merely a correlation. Or whether there are flaws in the methodology that change how you should interpret the results. That’s why news articles present such a simplified, distorted interpretation of scientific research. And why practically nobody goes to look at the study behind the article, to understand what it really means.

Cognitive difficulty is not the only reason. Even if you take a simple percentage like ‘99% of people who got the vaccine did not get any serious side effects’, it is not as persuasive as the story of someone who maybe got something from the vaccine. This is because it is too abstract. It’s too distant.

We evolved in a world where personal experience and social consensus were much more reliable than data. First of all because we had little to no abstract data outside of the group’s experience. Second because social consensus represented the cumulative learnings of generations of people living in that very environment. It was based on the most representative and relevant data possible. Third because the problems were amenable to such first hand data.

Now social consensus is relative. Everyone sees a different social consensus online. For one person it might appear that the consensus is that vaccines give you autism. The present digital platform live off attention and so they capture attention by feeding you information that reinforces your beliefs. Or information that captures your attention. Fake information is much more likely to catch attention than the boring truth.

The problems we struggle with now are those that are not amenable to first hand data. You don’t want to determine whether the vaccine is ok by testing it yourself. You have to rely on outside sources.

Fractured reality makes it likely that we gravitate towards information that supports what we want to believe.

People who want to regain control in the face of COVID-19 restrictions will be pulled towards information that helps them do that. Believing that the lockdowns are useless gives permission to resist them. Once you take this idea into consideration, the online world feeds you opinions from people who believe this as well. This strengthens your belief, which prompts the algorithm to feeds you more of these opinions, which strengthen your belief further.

The Internet is like quicksand. One thought in a direction is enough for you to sink into the extremist version of that idea.

Protesters are people who want the pandemic to be over. They fall into the trap of believing restrictions are unnecessary because they want to regain control over their lives. Most of them are people like you and me. Either one of us could have been on the street right now if conditions were different. If we had lost our job, or been forced to lockdown in unpleasant conditions. Or if we had the wrong friends on Facebook.

Empathy and understanding are needed to pull together. Not outrage and disdain. This pandemic was so hard because we could not pull together. If we don’t learn to empathize with each other more, we are setting ourselves up for much bigger problems in the future.

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Victor Rotariu

Victor Rotariu


Polymath. Curious. Writing a book on how to create an ideal life for our Paleolithic mind and body