Friday, March 08, 2013

The Human Reaction

I woke up to news that the Police were increasing the number of patrols on buses in the wake of the stabbing of a 16-year old. This seems a case of horses an stable doors, but in fact makes sense with the telling phrase "to reassure commuters" and that's because we're a strange species
In the wake of any such event our thoughts turn to fear "That could have been me!". It seems an obvious conclusion particularly for anyone in a similar position (which would be likely in a tribal situation), but examine the underlying processes and it's rather astonishing.

First off is the process of empathy. We're placing ourselves in the position of the other person. Secondly we take the past incident and project it into the future "That could have been me!" becomes "That could be me!". This is a highly useful learning ability. We don't have to discover things by ourselves, but can learn by example. Consider someone reaching into a fire and going "Ow!" We can imagine ourselves putting our hand in the fire instead and having the same reaction; thus we can choose not to put our hand in the fire at all.

Observation of this kind is great, but we've progressed beyond that. With speech it became possible to tell someone that 'fire hurts' without demonstrating it ourselves or forcing others to do so. With writing it became possible to inform people far away both in location and in time. In this age we can know inform someone of an incident on the other side of the world moments after it happened.

But this is where things can go wrong.

Because this ability evolved within a small similar group emulation made sense. If a tribesperson lived near a dangerous river; seeing someone fall in and drown would be a lesson not to fall in themselves. Another tribe living far away from that river would not have to learn that lesson and given distance would be unlikely ever to. Now however a message can be sent and pushed upon everyone to be mindful of the river, regardless of whether there is a river or if it's dangerous or not. The lesson is displayed to all.

Fortunately we have a couple of  'defence mechanisms' against learning unnecessarily the first is situational context. Message a desert tribe to be wary of rivers and the mental response is "That doesn't apply to us". This is how we can watch news of armed riots in the streets of another country and not be scared to leave the house - that doesn't apply to us.

Sadly this can fail us in a couple of ways. Firstly, in first-world countries at least, we live a similar lifestyle - we're all a big tribe. So something that happens in the very North of the country can equally apply to the very South. In this particular instances we all become wary of buses regardless of proximity to the stabbing itself.

The second is in the lesson not learnt. Our desert tribe doesn't learn the dangerous river lesson and then take a trip to somewhere with a dangerous river. The same "That doesn't apply to us" may still be in force because the brain can't cope with the sudden geographic shift. It may seem mad but it really is a case of someone thinking that "Warnings of rivers being dangerous doesn't apply to me because I normally do not associate with rivers" while that person is standing next to a river. Incidentally how close does that sound to the concept of "The rules don't apply for me, because the rules have never been applied to me"?

Added police presence on buses is therefore an attempt to change the situational context. It's not about trying to catch anyone or making it safer (per se) but to shift the attitude from "That could be me!" to "That can't be me because there are police about"

The second defence mechanism is simply memory. If an incident doesn't get reinforced it recedes. If we learnt a lesson and constantly applied it nothing would get done. We'd never get on a bus, we'd never drive a car because "It could happen to us!" would be a constant feature to our thoughts; but we do. With buses the police will provide extra patrols for a while and (unless another incident occurs) will slowly withdraw them. With the current horsemeat scandal there's been a drop in the sales of ready-meals and a rise in the sales at local 'proper' butchers, but unless something else happens this is likely to slowly switch back.

In other words we all get panicky hearing about dangerous incidents, unless it doesn't affect us; or until we haven't heard about it happening again recently.

Amazing creatures aren't we?


william said...

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