I am never sure how to respond to tragic public events. Part of the problem is that I am instinctively more concerned with those who are alive than those who are dead. Also, as a professor, I am instinctively concerned with how my students think about the world. While those might not seem like problematic things, they often make my most basic responses to such events seem callous.

When discussing such events with my students, I often feel the need to force them to critically evaluate their initial reactions: How do we generalize from anecdotes? Where is the balance point between freedom and safety? Given how many forgotten tragic events there are in history, is it really the case that "the town will never recover"? Those are not the conversations most people want to have.

When discussing such events with adults, particularly the more worldly ones, there are two ways it can go badly. Either 1) I get stuck trying to explain the virtues of the laws of our country, that allow such horrible things to happen, or 2) if they are from other parts of the world, I must agree that it is strange for this event to get such press, when there is so little press coverage of civilian deaths overseas. The latter is particularly bad, because it makes me feel like I should go back and explain to my still-shocked college students that this feeling they have is related to the reasons some foreigners have for hating our country. Again, bad idea.

Without even putting my "psychologist" hat on, the responses people have to tragedies are bizarre, and fascinating. Social networking sites and news feeds are working overtime to polarize opinions as much as possible: He used a gun! That means it is time our entire country strengthened gun restrictions from the ground up. There is never any legitimate reason for a normal citizen to own a firearm. Or, on another post... It is time that we mandated school janitors to have side arms.

On top of that, I am stuck wondering which little detail of the incident people will fixate upon? The kids at Columbine wore trench coats! No one cared that they wore tennis shoes. We are already hearing the latest shooter was "a loner," possibly on the autistic spectrum, probably on some sort of medication, another student in school—who probably has no idea what the term means—described him as "a goth". The media is in a legitimate frenzy to find out all the details they can about what happened, and in an illegitimate frenzy to figure out which details will make the best talking point.

I really wish these events could be discussed more honestly:

A person, an individual person, did a terrible thing. He did the type of terrible thing we wish no one would ever do.

We wish we knew why he did it, but we know we probably never will. Worse, we know that a complete answer would still leave us painfully unsatisfied, because there is absolutely no answer that would be satisfying.

We wish every-school, every-teacher, every-student, everywhere would be prepared for this type of situation. But we also don’t want to live in a world where school administrators and teachers have their lives consumed with worrying about every possible tragedy that could occur. We especially don’t want to live in a world where such concerns begin to consume our children.

We want to know why these events are becoming more common. We want to know this whether or not it is true that these events are becoming more common. Maybe we really want an explanation for our feeling that things are worse now than they used to be? We hope the answer is something we can fix, because we feel like we need to do something.

Most importantly:

When we are scared, we don’t think very clearly. When we are in mourning, we don’t think very clearly. This means it is a bad idea try to force people to change their views and adopt new ways of thinking in the immediate wake of a tragedy. In particular, it is a bad idea to try to force new rules on people, informally or by legislation. Fear and mourning lead us to concentrate on those we can help with our efforts, rather than those who can be hurt by unintended consequences of our actions. Laws often have bad unintended consequences. Showing your support to victims, survivors, and the communities affected tend to have good consequences. We need to take the time to be scared and sad, to be angry and confused, and to mourn. We need to show our support. The rest can wait.

Fixing Psychology

The once and future behaviorism.
Eric Charles, Ph.D.

Eric Charles, Ph.D., runs the research lab at CTRL, the Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, at American University.

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