It's All Relative

How comparisons create self-knowledge, action, and emotions.

Creating Psychological Safety After a Tragedy

Generating psychological distance brings psychological safety.

In our lifetimes, we experience shared moments as a nation.  These are the moments that can be summoned from our memories like home-movies.  We don't need a Facebook Timeline to tell us where we were or what we are doing.  I can remember exactly what I was doing and where I was when the Challenger Shuttle exploded.  I can remember coming home from school and seeing the video replayed over and over on the news.  I can remember exactly how I found out about the World Trade Center in New York; how the story changed from minor news story to immense tragedy in just the time it took for the snooze timer on my clock radio to go off.  I think this event, this terrible, tragic, shooting of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut is one of those events.  But, rather than a moment, I will remember the entire past weekend.  I will remember that it was harder to leave my son at the door of his third grade class this morning than it was to leave him on his first day of kindergarten.  This moment, this event, is so much harder because I am a parent.  The wall between me and those parents, those teachers, that community is wafer-thin.  Despite the thousands of miles of physical distance, the psychological closeness is unbearable.  There is not enough distance between me and them.

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To cope with this tragedy, we all create distance between ourselves and the victims.  In order to function in our day-to-day lives, we must move from empathy to sympathy.  How do we do this?  How do we create psychological distance?

One way is to distance ourselves from the crime through endorsing the just world hypothesis.  This belief system holds that things happen in this world for a reason: bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people.  Believing this provides a sense of control - if we are good people, these bad things won't happen to us.  These kinds of beliefs are often at the foundation of arguments that blame the victim.  For example, rape victims may be blamed for "asking for it" or flood victims for not evacuating.  A more extreme example may be the Westboro Baptist Church, which argues that the shooting in Connecticut and the deaths of military personnel are God's retribution for American sins.  Also evidence of this reasoning, in more moderate and subtle tones, is emerging in conversations about the Connecticut town (e.g. the town was full of gun enthusiasts), the youth and innocence of the children killed and the heroism of the teachers make it harder to see this terrible event as arising from some culpability on anyone's part.  The senseless of the event, heightened because the killer did not leave a note or hint of justification, makes it harder for us to see ways that we can control events to prevent this from happening to our children.

Another way to create that distance is to generate counterfactuals.  Counterfactuals are alternative versions of reality that generally pivot on a specific, salient, event that alters all future events.   For example, if you arrived late for an important meeting, you might think that if you hadn't spilled coffee on your shirt, you would have been on time.  In the case of terrible events like these, people search for moments where things could have gone differently.  And, they think about how they can make specific choices, and therefore avoid a particular reality.  For example, initial reports stated (incorrectly) that the shooter's mother was a teacher at the school and was the target.  This story allows people to see the mother as the target, not the children, which might make them feel better about the safety of their own children.  In addition, the debate on gun control initiated by this event pivots on a counterfactual: what would have happened if the shooter had not had access to a gun? 

Finally, we create distance by finding comparing ourselves to the victims and finding differences.  These differences are not necessarily things that make us better or worse than the victims, but simply reduce the perceived likelihood that it could ever happen to us.  When postal workers shot their colleagues, we could comfort ourselves that we weren't postal workers.  When a Sikh temple was attacked, we could comfort ourselves that we weren't Sikhs.  When moviegoers were killed in Colorado, we could comfort ourselves that we weren't late night movie watchers.  We find ways in which we are different, our circumstances are different and we shy away from ways in which we are the same.  Again, the age of the victims, the lack of an explanation provided by the shooter, and the mundaneness of their lives, make it more difficult to find differences in this case than in the other examples.

Using these and other mental tricks, we'll keep looking to find evidence that our schools are safer, that our towns are better, that our children are safer.  And, it's okay.  It's a coping mechanism that makes it possible for us to continue with our lives.  It might allow us to turn our sadness and fear into anger and righteousness, and move us towards actions that will make every child safe, not just our own.

 

Camille Johnson, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and Associate Professor of Organization and Management at San Jose State University.

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