It’s been a big year for stories of moral miscreants behaving horribly. We’ve watched American Marines urinate on the corpses of Taliban soldiers, sex abuse allegations at Penn State, and many others. Lesser known but equally troubling was the avoidable demise of Alison Hume.
Recently, I was riveted by a news story about a lawsuit surrounding Alison Hume who was kept writhing in pain for eight hours after she fell into a 45-foot mineshaft in the UK in 2008. Emergency workers could have easily extracted her with the hoist they used to lower rescuers to check on her. But it was against the rules to use that same hoist to raise a civilian. Emergency workers wrung their hands in silence for hours while temperatures plummeted. More than one rescuer thought the bureaucratic rule was insane, but the longer the crisis continued, the more powerless they felt to challenge it. Alison later died of a heart attack caused by her prolonged hypothermia.
The gateway sin in many of these tragedies is silence. Along the way, those who should know better remain silent rather than shout in outrage. It’s easy to dismiss a single instance of irresponsibility as a flaw in one personality. But when I see patterns of questionable social behavior, I look for a lesson about humanity.
Biology Over Morality
It’s easy to throw rocks at the late Joe Paterno who did little more than pass along a complaint after hearing a detailed description from assistant coach McQueary of Jerry Sandusky sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy in a Penn State shower. The right thing to do—as Paterno later acknowledged—would have been to pound the table until truth and justice were served.
We throw rocks because we’re sitting in what psychologists call a “cold” state while judging the actions of others in a “hot” state.
In a cold state, we empathize with others, think about long-term consequences, and reflect on moral issues. We’re basically good people. In a hot state, however, higher thoughts slip away. When under conditions of physical or social threat, our thinking is impaired.
My Glass House
Recently, I was in a cold state enjoying lunch with a new friend who has lifted thousands of people from poverty. He is educated, generous, and charming. So, I was stunned when he dropped a racist epithet that made my stomach turn. I had a flashing sense of the need to confront him. Then I entered a hot state.
Accompanying my profound discomfort were thoughts about how awkward it would be to suggest he was a racist. I panicked at possibly offending him and losing a prized new relationship.
I am ashamed of how I handled that moment. I only looked him in the eye, frowned, and shook my head. I rationalized that my nonverbals were unmistakable. But in reality, I was complicit through my silence.
How to Influence Your Biology
For 25 years, I’ve studied people who are skillful at taking moral action even in an incredibly hot state.
I once observed a man use a racist term to refer to his colleague, Claire. Immediately, Claire’s hands clenched and her face flushed. But then, she focused on a spot on the wall, took a breath, and delivered the most potent, graceful, and effective confrontation of that awful behavior I have ever witnessed.
I asked Claire to retrace the mental steps that led to her incredible intervention. I learned that when she felt threatened, she intentionally changed how she assessed risk.
Previously, her tendency was to think first about the risks of speaking up, leading her to avoid confrontation and remain silent. But over time, she conditioned herself to think differently. When under stress, she’d breathe, disconnect, and ask, “What are the risks of not speaking up?” As a result, she spoke up candidly, respectfully, and effectively.
Imagine if Joe Paterno had paused and asked, “What is the worst that can happen if I don’t pursue this allegation forcefully?” What if one of Alison Hume’s rescuers had thought, “What is the worst that can happen if I don’t confront our passivity?”
What if I, rather than be paralyzed by an inventory of the awkward and painful things that might happen if I did speak up, listed things that would certainly happen if I didn’t?
Before spending more time with my new friend, I will think, plan, and rehearse. Research shows those who commit in advance to concrete actions while in a cold state are substantially more likely to follow through on them when things get hot.
So, I’m rehearsing for the next time. Thank you, Claire.