British Columbia·Analysis

Why the 'sucker's payoff' is one of B.C.'s biggest obstacles this Christmas

In the past two weeks across British Columbia, people have been having "the talk": older millennials with their baby boomer parents, Gen Xers with elderly parents and university-aged children, people who live alone and people who live in multi-generational households. 

Bonnie Henry is asking families to make smart choices — but that can mean different things to different people

Dr. Bonnie Henry gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for the province of British Columbia in Victoria, B.C, on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press )

"There's a few scenarios I'd like to ask you about."

That was the beginning of a question to B.C.'s chief health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry this week, her face visibly flinching as a reporter asked about three hypotheticals where people really want to hang out with people outside the house they live in during Christmastime and are wondering if it's OK

"I've been inundated with hundreds of 'what about my specific situation?'" said Henry, her voice hinting at a bit of frustration.

"The intent is to reduce transmissions that we can have when people get together. Bottom line is, we want to, as much as possible, stick with our households."

And yet, just a minute later, Henry acknowledged that seniors could visit their children and grandchildren — at least some of them.  

"People need to find what they need to do for themselves … but not each of your children, not going to multiple houses. Pick one," she said.

It's much the same mix of broad advice and specific caveats the government has been giving us for nine months: look at the guidelines, use common sense, err on the side of caution. 

But after nine months of trying to thread the needle of managing but not eliminating the virus, nine months of stress and constant prisoner's dilemmas, and the biggest annual occasion for large family gatherings fast approaching, there are more people with questions they want answered than ever before. 

Across British Columbia in the past two weeks, people have been having "the talk": older millennials with their baby boomer parents, Gen Xers with elderly parents and university-aged children, people who live alone and people who live in multi-generational households. 

People want a firm yes or no on whether their holiday plan is "safe." For the most part, they aren't going to get it. 

If you can't look outward to the government for advice though, you can always look inward. Because in a way, we're all living out a Dickensian Christmas dilemma this year. 

Rights vs. duties

"There's some good we all need to achieve, but we can only achieve it if we all work together."

It's called a collective action problem, and it's the heart of the dilemma British Columbians have been facing for months, says Simon Fraser University philosophy professor Evan Tiffany.

Tiffany highlighted a particular problem in decision theory called the "sucker's payoff": you do something for the greater good, but you see another group making a different choice, receiving a bigger immediate payoff and overall case counts and restrictions continue to rise. 

It's a hard temptation at any time but particularly during the holidays. 

"If people start looking at it, they say I don't want to be the sucker," said Tiffany. 

"You have to change how people think about the problem … one way is instilling a sense of duty. You're not just thinking about it from the sense of self-interest."

At the same time, Tiffany highlighted a few challenges to that "sense of duty," particularly around Christmas. 

One is isolated seniors and people with mental health challenges greatly suffering if families can't find ways of making this holiday season work.  

The other is how many people are more geared than ever to a "rights based" approach in decision making.

"It can go a little bit too far: 'it's my right to decide what I put on my face or to have my family over for a celebration,'" he said. 

"If we just start thinking completely focused on rights, we lose sense of this other important category: virtue. Thinking about other people for their own sake."

What is the meaning of Christmas?

Which is all well and good for a philosophy class, but how should people approach those talks, decisions and conflicts with family this Christmas? 

One way is to dramatically expand our conception of people that we care about.

"Stop thinking of people as strangers, but start thinking of people as one giant family: we should be doing things because we recognize that it's benefiting them," said Tiffany.     

If you think that's a bit over the top while considering plans for the next two weeks, think about the most timeless holiday specials. 

A Christmas Carol, perhaps, or maybe It's A Wonderful Life. Possibly something a bit more cartoony, like How the Grinch Stole Christmas. 

They're all stories about people realizing the effect they have on others, and how their individual actions can collectively make the world a better place.

These aren't easy decisions to make. But few things about 2020 are easy. 

"It's been a hard year, but there does seem to be hope," said Tiffany.  

"If the alternative is we just keep making things worse, is it worth having that Christmas party?"

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