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Beware the power of muscle memory

The ability to train our malleable minds is both a blessing and a curse—as the grand social re-engineering experiment of Covid-19 lockdowns is revealing

“You’ve got to shout it out, Mr Jeffrey!” came my gunnery instructor’s admonishing Yorkshire tones from the raised walkway around the tank turret simulator. I had just finished loading an ammunition belt into the 7.62-mm machine gun and shoved a huge projectile and bag charge into the giant obsidian breech block of the main 120-mm armament before reporting “Loaded”—confirming the tank was ready to fire—to the imaginary commander. The instructor encouraged the trainee troop leaders under his charge cycling through the simulator to shout out the loaded confirmation at the completion of the elaborate loading sequence, explaining it would be hard to hear in the juddering turret of a tank moving at speed.

Once habits are drilled into your psyche, they can become second nature

As the weeks passed at the Lulworth gunnery school, the muscle memory began to kick in as we went through the drills day in and day out. Eventually we could load each type of tank round and appropriate bag charge while executing an elaborate sequence of pulling levers and flicking switches in the right order. Sometimes we managed it fast enough—quick loading being essential because if you didn’t fire quick enough the enemy tank might have fired at you first, after which you would never be loading anything again—to earn a complimentary word or nod from our instructor. And as confidence in our loading skills grew, so too did the volume levels inside the turret simulator. Eventually each of us was roaring “LOADED!” with enough gusto to make the other trainee troop leaders watching the drills grimace at the decibel level of a newly acquired, adolescent war cry, ready to be put to good use.

A Challenger 2 Tank Operator on Castlemartin Ranges loads a Drill Sabot Trainer round into the breach | © Crown Copyright 2014 | Photographer: Cpl Si Longworth RLC | Image 45157420.jpg from www.defenceimages.mod.uk

Muscle memory was used to great effect during military training to teach you how to do new and complicated tasks like priming a tank to fire, dissembling your SA80 rifle for cleaning and then reassembling it, or donning your NBC respirator before 9 seconds had elapsed and you were overcome by the toxic fumes of whatever chemical agent the enemy had fired at you. The ability of humans to learn strange new skills and acquire habits through sheer repetition is highly effective—hence the army embraced it. Once habits are drilled into your psyche, they can become second nature.

I could probably have a fair stab at stripping an SA80 rifle today even though I haven’t touched a rifle in more than a decade. I can still remember where to finger the safety catch with the right forefinger, where to press the magazine release catch with the left thumb, how to pull the cocking handle back—right hand—and apply the bolt release catch—left hand—to check inside the barrel; it’s all seared into my neural pathways or wherever the memory resides.

Our society is now the carrier of a range of new and strange habits, many of which could prove difficult to unlearn

The problem is muscle memory can exert its force in a far less constructive way: all the bad habits we have learned this past year (and counting) that has turned into an extraordinary perilous social re-engineering experiment—the habitual mask wearing, recoiling from someone getting too close, not smiling, shunning crowds, not engaging with strangers, doing absolutely everything online—will need to be undone and replaced by learning new (though formerly old) habits: taking the extra time to seek out the brick and mortar options, perhaps even going to church; looking strangers in the eyes, being civil and friendly, taking that extra moment to hold a door open or to offer to help, hugging and hand holding.

This is the great challenge come the government’s munificent opening up of society in June. Even if the government does allow us to go back to close to normal and the dreaded “road map” they propose is not disrupted by curveballs such as reascending infection rates or variant strains—neither of which should, if they happen, be used to justify not turning the key—Society Inc. is now the carrier of a wholesale range of new and strange habits, many of which could prove extremely difficult to unlearn, so effective and powerful is muscle memory.

Hence the Greek philosopher Aristotle took habits seriously, seeing them as a fundamental part of leading a good and virtuous life: “…These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions,” Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics. “The good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life … for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed or happy.”

In other words, as Will Durant writes in The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers: “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly … we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

There are various claims about how long it takes to create a new habit, ranging from the likes of 21 days to 10 weeks. Such arguments over timelines are rather moot at this point given how far we are beyond them. We are definitely in habit-forming territory now.

“Decades of psychological research consistently show that mere repetition of a simple action in a consistent context leads, through associative learning, to the action being activated upon subsequent exposure to those contextual cues,” says the British Journal of General Practise. “Once initiation of the action is ‘transferred’ to external cues, dependence on conscious attention or motivational processes is reduced. Therefore, habits are likely to persist even after conscious motivation or interest dissipates.”

That translates, the journal says, to automatically washing hands (action) after using the toilet (contextual cue) or putting on a seatbelt (action) after getting into the car (contextual cue). The problem now is that the contextual cue for almost all the new Covid-19-related habits we have acquired—had rammed down our throats—is that most fundamental condition of human community: being around other people. And in the next few months as the lockdown lifts, we are going to be around crowds of more people—the contextual cue—while needing not to react with the new habits that being around people have become associated with.

Breaking our new Covid-19-forged habits can be done; but it will require focus and will power

The challenge is compounded by the nefarious effect that the stamp of approval from authority figures can have on human behaviour and habits. The so-called Milgram experiments were a series of social psychology tests conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961 that measured the willingness of study participants—men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education—to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe they were assisting an experiment investigating the relationship between memory and learning, specifically what effect punishment could have on a subject’s ability to memorise content, in which they were told to administer electric shocks to the “learner” by the person in charge of the experiment. These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that could have been fatal had they been real. The experiment illustrated that a very high proportion of participants would fully obey the instructions, even ignoring any reservations they had.

The experiments were conducted in the wake of the trial of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. Milgram was spurred in his psychological investigation to explain the psychology of genocide and the possibility that Eichmann and everyone else involved in facilitating the Holocaust were just following orders from above. Repeated many times around the globe, the experiment has generated a fairly consistent, and unsettling, result.

Of course, breaking our new Covid-19-forged habits can be done. But, as with relinquishing any habit, it will be hard and require focus and will power. And the exercise of will power hasn’t had a great run of form lately as society en masse has, in line with the Milgram experiments, conformed and fallen in line with every proclamation issued by the government and its behavioural scientists, those learned overseers who have used our habit-forming proclivities against us, especially when it comes to the likes of mask wearing.

“Some of the behavioural scientists love masks, they love them, because they think they express solidarity,” Laura Dodsworth, a photographer and writer who has emerged as a prominent lockdown critic and latter-day punchy Cassandra trying to save us from ourselves and from those who would bend us to their wills, says in The Critic podcast How the government has exploited our human response to danger.

Dodsworth has a book coming out this year called A State of Fear, which investigates the use of behavioural science, in particular the leveraging of fear by authorities, to encourage everyone to adhere to rules; in the podcast she notes how behavioural science has become deeply embedded within government, which includes a behavioural insights team advising away.

“Behavioural scientists like us thinking like a big homogonous group, it makes us a lot easier to control,” Dodsworth says. “You’ve got to remember that behavioural science is not about how you feel but how you behave.” Hence masks are favoured by the scientists, she explains, because they “signal danger”, with each mask-wearing person acting as a “walking billboard” pronouncing to and reminding others that there is “danger” and “it’s not safe out here.”

Non-conformity and independence of thought are two of the hardest habits to learn

Given that it can never be entirely safe out there in the world—and the fact that as a society we seem to have suddenly forgotten this obvious fact while also suddenly becoming disproportionately freaked out about it—the current situation has many of those unhappy with the draconian nature of the government’s handling of Covid-19 concerned that mask wearing could become a permanent feature of society. Dodsworth says that given the “kind of privileged access to decision making” that behavioural scientists currently have in government, mask wearing could indeed continue until there is some sort of collective societal pushback in the form of “large scale disgust for them, or rebellion or disinterest.”

As to what happens next in the trajectory of Covid-19 and its attending social re-engineering project, Dodsworth says she doesn’t think the end is in sight yet, despite the government’s cheery proclamations.

“It’s going to be difficult to move on when people really don’t want to really acknowledge the truth about things,” Dodsworth says. “It’s really hard to do that kind of mirror work and say, Well, I might have been wrong, or, Gosh, I thought this was for the best, but this was the true consequence.”

Unfortunately, similar to the difficulty posed by acknowledging a mistake, we have also seen how non-conformity and independence of thought are two of the hardest habits to learn.

“People have to show the will,” Dodsworth says. “I think that our reaction to the epidemic was probably a really hard-baked human response to the threat of danger and fear of death, and that has been exploited by the government to make people follow the rules.”

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