Dangerous Thoughts

“I think it will be all right. It seems safe enough.”

The Surgeon General of the United States is concerned about the next couple of weeks determining our ability to flatten the curve and relieve the pressure on our emergency services. He is asking for greater compliance with the best practices they have established for our mutual safety. This means following them consistently, even when we don’t think we need to. Masks are the latest requests, with compliance not so good. So, it is timely to refresh our understanding of what leads us to make exceptions and not follow best practices, especially when they are being imposed on us. Many of us rebel against that.

While there are several lines of reasoning that tempt us to not comply, they all lead to the thought, “I think it will be alright. It seems safe enough.” We can listen for that thought, and ones like it. When we think like that, we are trusting our own judgment instead of people whose judgment is based on far more data than we have.

“I thought it would be alright.” Painfully, as a psychologist I have heard this expressed by many professionals who knowingly did not follow professional boundaries and best practices. They thought things would be alright because that is what they wanted to believe. But things went bad and out of their control. People got hurt.

“I think it will be alright” has led to many disasters that would not have occurred if people had followed guidelines instead of their own judgment. Lest we think we are immune to this kind of thinking, among the disasters due to not following guidelines was the Space Shuttle explosion. These were intelligent people. So also, were the people who died on Mt. Everest from not heeding the 2pm rule of the mountain, to turn back toward camp at that time regardless of how close you are to the summit. Some of the climbers convincing themselves and each other that it would be alright. There hadn’t been bad weather in a long time. An unexpected snowstorm came up and many people died. Others were put at risk to try to rescue them.

Tragically, a community choir recently encountered unnecessary illness and death. They thought it would be safe to get together and sing to lift their spirits because there had been no reported cases of COVID-19 infection in their county. “It hasn’t happened around here. I think it will be alright.” This is called distance bias. Even though it has happened elsewhere, if it hasn’t happened around here, we don’t take the threat as applying to our location. That was there; this is here, the reasoning goes. Well, it did happen to this choir. With this virus, it can happen anywhere.

Of course our minds will want to find exceptions to make things easier, get us what we want or not make us look foolish wearing a mask, for instance. Let us be vigilant, recognize when these thoughts when they occur and not follow them. Thank others for doing the same and encourage those that don’t.