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A few years ago my private-detective firm, qri, was hired by a software company to investigate rumours that its chief technology officer was misappropriating company assets. Our investigation, which included surveillance, tracking down deleted texts and conducting interviews with former employees, uncovered evidence that he was funnelling contracts to a shell company that he secretly owned.

When I told the client, she gasped. “But he’s a wunderkind,” she said. “A star.” Our invoice was paid but the cto wasn’t fired. A year later, he was promoted. Six months after that, the fbi arrested him for stealing trade secrets and selling them to China.

The client’s inaction was a risky move by a growing company with a mountain of debt and a global brand. The management was struck by the allure of the cto’s reputation and feared any negative publicity. Better to bury the story. The company made the wrong decision, of course, even though it assessed the risk.

Status, wealth, power – all goad us to risk what we have. But as a viral pandemic courses through humanity, I have wondered if there is a particular brand of American risk-taking, a wilful exposure to uncertainty and peril, that is rooted in our fealty to personal freedoms and individual achievement.

We gamble with our money, our votes, our guns, in denying existential threats (such as climate change), as well as with our health and our relationships. In failing to properly manage the spread of coronavirus, the country with the world’s most expensive healthcare system has made good on President Trump’s promise to put “America first” – by burying more victims than any other nation. Many politicians are discounting the advice of public-health experts and disseminating false narratives. Prosperity and “freedom” seem to be paramount to safety, health and life. Perhaps, like a software company facing a crisis, we must learn to trust experts.

My job as a private eye is to mitigate risk by helping clients to uncover wrongdoing, right wrongs (real or perceived), get justice, gain an advantage over a competitor, satisfy curiosity, find a missing person, recover a stolen asset or feed paranoia. I find and analyse hidden information, which clients use to assess uncertainty.

But I have learned not to predict how clients will use that intelligence. One ngo that hired me to vet the background of a prospective executive director before extending a job offer, discounted the severity of my discovery that the candidate had fudged credentials on her CV. She was later caught pilfering donor money and was ostracised from the industry. 

There might be a simple explanation for why people behave unpredictably, often ignoring what they don’t want to hear and making decisions designed to avoid the consequences. Academics call this “implicatory denial”.

The conspiracy-minded are taking to Twitter and gathering in town squares, amplifying slogans: “Fire [Anthony] Fauci!” (the embattled voice of scientific reason within the Trump administration) goes one; “Let us work!” goes another.

The consequences of this strain of contrarianism can be tragic. In March, 60-year-old John McDaniel berated Ohio governor Mike DeWine for closing restaurants and bars. “Bullshit!” he wrote on social media. “If you are paranoid about getting sick just don’t go out. It shouldn’t keep those of us from Living our Lives.” In April, McDaniel died after contracting coronavirus.

Perhaps we must become more risk averse while retaining our ambition. A shift towards collective responsibility might help the US find a path towards rebuilding its society – and the world.

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