The Deadly Consequence of Cognitive Isolation

In our new pandemic reality, you’ve probably become familiar with these three terms: social distancing, quarantine, and isolation. But there’s a fourth term that we need to know: cognitive isolation.

  • Social distancing means keeping others at a recommended distance of six feet to minimize the risk of infection.
  • Quarantine is staying at home or in a specially designated location typically for fourteen days for those who appear healthy but may have been exposed to the virus.
  • Isolation is separating those who are sick or infected away from those who are not.
  • Cognitive isolation – that’s my term for leaders who isolate themselves from irrefutable facts when they make critical decisions.

When individuals with limited power practice cognitive isolation, they may harm themselves and a small number of people. But when executives of major corporations or powerful governments practice cognitive isolation, they damage the public. Denying facts have deadly consequences. To the horror of many U.S. citizens, our president has built a wall around the facts of sound public health policy and preparedness and has consequently endangered the U.S. population.

The Bible is not a leadership textbook, but some of its narratives provide insight into leadership types. Pharaoh, who enslaved the Jewish people, is a primary example of a ruler who practiced cognitive isolation. He surrounded himself with “yes men”: advisors, cabinet members, and wizards (after all, magical thinking in a time of crisis can only help, right?), and ignored the consequences of his inaction while his people progressively suffered.

When Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh with the ultimatum, “Let my people go,” they backed their demands with plagues that harmed the economy. First, they turned the Nile red with blood and choked off Egypt’s water supply, and then by overran the land with invading frogs that entered every nook and cranny of people’s homes and businesses (Exodus 7:19; 8:6). The economy must have idled because it was impossible to do anything but keep those abominable amphibians at bay. But Pharaoh’s staff wizards easily replicated what he must have thought were cheap party tricks, and Pharaoh invited further suffering by ignoring these early signals of destruction.

The house magicians soon admitted to Pharaoh that “God’s finger” (Exodus 8:15) must be behind the plagues, as Moses and Aaron warned. They can’t reproduce the third plague, lice, which likely caused people to isolate themselves because of severe itching (sorry, ancient Egyptians, too early for Benadryl). And by the sixth plague, boils, Pharaoh’s entourage is “unable to stand before him” (Exodus 9:11) from the painful inflammation caused by head-to-toe boils. Enough said about this ancient case study of cognitive isolation – we know how that story ends: loss of human and animal life and unmitigated economic devastation, outcomes that Pharaoh could have mitigated. And Pharaoh, despite his denials, personally confronts the consequences of cognitive isolation when the final plague strikes home.

I write about leadership in the corporate, nonprofit, and governmental sectors. Each sector offers effective and destructive models of leadership. COVID-19 doesn’t distinguish between Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, and it is uninterested in a person’s nationality. President Trump embodies a leadership type of cognitive isolation. Fortunately, we have seen stellar examples of Republican and Democratic governors who know that they are stewards of the health and well-being of their citizens. They understand the deadly consequences of cognitive isolation. They challenge us to think about the kinds of leaders we need to navigate the new norm of more frequent pandemics and other global issues that don’t care about national borders.

About the Author
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., is a national thought leader, organizational consultant and author on the American Jewish community with a specialty in synagogue life. He is President & CEO of the Herring Consulting Network.