Monday, September 18, 2017

Twisted Cause and Effect: Blame the Victim

(Click here for the Podcast)  Why Did My Gaboon Viper Bite Me? I Thought We Understood Each Other!

Sometimes you really can blame the victim and do it with full confidence that yours is the moral high ground. For example, there are the thrill-seekers who become tornado chasers and then get stuck on a highway that does not happen to go where you need it to go to get out of the way of the approaching vortex, is one example. Also, we can point to the people who refused to evacuate their beach houses before the arrival of a Category-5 hurricane with 10-foot surge and monster waves.

Hurricane Irma in Cuba. From ABCLocal.
Even then, it’s really hard to condemn them, especially since we eagerly devour their close-up videos of nature’s beasts. In a certain way, we’re complicit. Besides, in some cases, they seem heroic, especially if they’ve prepared and are well aware of the danger. We may even be financing their risk-taking. Think of all the expeditions to the South Pole that were funded by donations, even as the donors knew full well that there was a fairly high likelihood that the intrepid crew would not return from their 2 or 3-year quest – for a penguin’s egg, photographs of ice formations, rare phenomena. With today’s technology, there’s not the same need to explore on the ground, given the nano-satellites that have remarkable resolution. We can see it all from space. But, yet, we want the experience. If we learn something, all the better, but what is most attractive is that it’s that moment of raw awareness that this is as extreme as it gets – and you’re a part of it.

So, I can understand storm-chasers and explorers of the Antarctic.

I don’t understand the tourists who run with the bulls in Pamplona. But, perhaps that’s a part of a kind of bullfighter mass psychosis. Go to a bullfight. Experience the corrida.  Then, be a DIY bullfighter and run with the bulls in Pamplona. There’s tradition and symbolism in this, so, again, I find myself giving the victims a pass.

Where it becomes more complicated is where someone is engaged in risky behavior that is self-destructive and seems, on the surface and from the outside, to be really, really delusional.

I’m thinking of people who have dangerous pets. For example, there are the people (mainly fairly young men) who have venomous snakes as pets. Many are ones I had never heard of until I binge-watched episodes of “Fatal Attractions” on Animal Planet. There are pygmy rattlers, West African Gaboon vipers, black mambas, and many more, that are not only deadly, but most hospitals do not have anti-venom. Then there are people who are mauled and killed by their pet alligators, Burmese pythons, lions, tigers, and chimpanzees. What are they thinking? Clearly there is a fantasy scenario and a deep need that is being satisfied. There could also be an identity issue, which is to say that the “pet” serves as an extension of themselves, and perhaps possesses the attributes they’d like people to think that they have. Wild? Deadly? Powerful? Invulnerable? A child of the untamed wilderness? Free? Well, some of those attributes seem somewhat attractive to me, but I don’t think I need to share my living room with a gabon pit viper or an alligator to feel I’m a child of nature. Plus, I think the reptiles smell bad.

from Wildlife.org  - Burmese python hatchling in Key Largo
When we blame the victim, we employ causality as a logic structure.

It’s really simple:
    You kept a pygmy rattlesnake in your house. It bit you. Your own decision hurt you. And, let’s also mention that there was a pretty high likelihood that the snake would bite you, especially since you liked to play with it, because you thought you had a special relationship of “mutual trust” with it.

Safety regulations and codes are built on causal logic, but they’re also fraught with open gaps that make it difficult to actually establish a culture of safety. It’s not just the “blame the victim” mindset, but it’s also because people are not thinking of the delusions and cognitive bias that underlie the risky decisions that are made.

Let’s take a look at the example of the pygmy rattlesnake again:
    You kept a pygmy rattlesnake in your house. It bit you. Your own decision hurt you. And, let’s also mention that there was a pretty high likelihood that the snake would bite you, especially since you liked to play with it, because you thought you had a special relationship of “mutual trust” with it.

Let’s review the last part: “because you thought you had a special relationship of “mutual trust” with it”.  It is precisely that “because” phrase where we get in trouble. It’s the weak link in the actual adherence to safety protocols. They’re why a “culture of safety” is often hard to actually enforce.

It’s why so many people do not follow good advice. They think that they have a special relationship with or unique understanding of the hurricane, the tornado-spawning storm system, the alligator, the Burmese python, the bad boyfriend, and that their unique knowledge or understanding will protect them. If, for some reason, it does not go quite as planned, they think the emotional payoffs (and sometime financial spoils) will compensate.

And, sometimes they’re right. But not often.

And, in the meantime, the simplistic cause-and-effect argument we utilize to blame the victim is satisfies us because it’s elegant in its simplicity and symmetry.

But, if we’re serious about writing a series of safety guides or developing safety training, we’ll need to be more realistic, and actually take the time to address the aspirational hopes and dreams, or the deep-seated emotional narratives that lurk under the surface and influence behavior.

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