Every single one of us has seen a situation and wondered that. How could they be so stupid?
Here are three examples that you might be able to relate to:
1) Buying a dog from a backyard or unreputable breeder after saying ‘adopt don’t shop’ for years
2) Giving away thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars (in gift cards perhaps) to a stranger online in a scam
3) Breaching Covid-19 restrictions and lockdown, for instance driving across the border for a shopping trip
We might sit at home and read these examples, think about them, imagine the possible reasons why people might make these frankly moronic decisions, and come up with nothing that explains it.
In a sense, the people in these stories become enigmas of ‘those people’. The kind of people who must be lacking a serious capacity to reason.
They become other, the aliens to us who we struggle so hard to empathise and identify with.
Because when we put ourselves in that situation, we know exactly how we would act.
We wouldn’t be so stupid.
I’ve heard this repeatedly from anyone talking about a situation where they can’t fathom how a person made such an apparently idiotic decision.
Maybe they end up putting it down to a lack of education, intergenerational poverty… or just a complete unknown.
But often, they dwell on it, verbally, over and over again, like an eternal mystery that will never be solved. And it’s this dwelling on it that tells me that they want to comprehend more than they are willing to move on in life.
And for the longest time, I found this so frustrating.
Because no matter how many times I explained and re-explained that you can’t always predict how you would act in any given circumstance, it felt like it was falling on deaf ears.
Well, no wonder it frustrated me.
See, for years, I’ve explained these phenomena to those friends or colleagues — ‘look, people think differently when their circumstances are different, you don’t know the factors around them that led them to that decision’. But that explanation has never been quite enough.
And after that explanation, there is always the response that starts with…
‘But all I’m saying is… I get it in certain circumstances, maybe, but I just don’t understand how the same thing keeps happening over and over again to these people/ Why don’t they learn?/ Who doesn’t realise gift card requests are scams by now?/ Sure, maybe the widows and the elderly people would fall for it, but what about that 35 year old?/ Why wouldn’t you just stay in lockdown?/ How can they not see how bad it is to adopt from a breeder when there are thousands of rescue dogs looking for a home?’
And for years, as I’ve walked away dwelling on those conversations, fuming over the inhumanity, I felt in the judges and their cool assessment of these people, I would put the lack of awareness I was hearing from the complainant to a combination of two things.
As a white woman who grew up in inner western Sydney, received a great education and has supportive parents, I’ve experienced significant privilege.
And without laying all of that privilege out right now (though please, ask and ye shall receive), I’ve experienced the following in my life as significant moderators of my views and perceptions that help me recognise the privilege I grew up with:
So when I have these conversations that remind me of talking to an 18-year-old version of myself, honestly, it’s infuriating.
This one has always been harder to articulate because if anyone hears you say they are displaying a lack of empathy or aren’t putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, it’s never a well-received observation.
So of course I never say it like that, and I try to get the person to understand by asking them to consider certain dire circumstances in their life. Take the scam, for example. Here is a scenario I tend to spell out in various forms to anyone who queries how people are still falling for Nigerian Princes.
Perhaps you’ve been widowed for 5 years.
Your children don’t talk to you — they won’t even return your calls most of the time, not because of a falling out. They’re busy with their own lives, partners and children. Even if they are in the same state, you hardly see them, not through your own choice.
Sure, you have $300,000 sitting in your bank account from the estate of your deceased husband, but it’s not like that money is tangible to you. You have a house and afford your bills on a fortnightly payment you receive from the estate.
So what harm is there in drawing from that estate to make payments to the one person who has shown you a deep affection and love in 5 if not more years?
The one person who seems to see you in this world?
It doesn’t start out seeming like it’s risky. You feel in control. You are the one withdrawing the funds; you don’t hand over passwords yet.
And then, when you’ve known this person for 6 whirlwind romantic weeks (in which you’ve felt the most understood, more than ever before), maybe you offer to give them a password to access your account. Because you know you can trust them eternally, they haven’t done anything to burn you yet.
And then if you show any signs of hesitance or refusal, you find yourself unknowingly on the receiving end of classic domestic abuse tactics, for example:
- Being put down and ignored in response to what the scammer sees as ‘bad behaviour.’
- Being love bombed in response to what the scammer sees as ‘good behaviour.’
- Being gradually isolated from every single person in your life as you find yourself defending the one person who clearly loves you the most
In one of my favourite podcasts, NPR’s Hidden Brain hosted and edited by Shankar Vedantam You 2.0: In the Heat of the Moment, they explore what eloquently answers the question of why people can’t fathom these people making these decisions.
Listening to this episode was a real missing piece for me because, for a long time, I tried to explain why people making decisions in ‘the heat of the moment or if not the moment, at least after being led down an emotional path of certain peril by a set of circumstances set out in front of them. It might take one day, months, or years.
But eventually, when the decision has been made to transfer funds in a scam, not to abide by lockdown restrictions, or to suddenly adopt from a breeder after years of being all for ‘adopt, don’t shop’, so much more has been happening in that person’s head, leading them to that decision than meets the eye.
In the episode mentioned, Vedantam explains that humans are proven to be bad at assessing how we might behave in a moment when we are in a ‘heated’ emotional state if we are making that assessment when we are in a ‘cool’ state.
This is why we can often look at people reacting to situations that we have never experienced, or even ones we have experienced, but that we just aren’t in at the moment, and do not accurately anticipate how we might behave.
So of course we look at others who are sitting at home in lockdown, and breach it by going out of their walking zone by a kilometre or two and shake our heads at them for contributing to the greater transmission of Covid-19 in our area.
Because we aren’t that person experiencing a high level of stress, or a desire to go on a date with someone they haven’t been able to see yet but really like a lot. Someone who is out of the 10km radius restriction.
I think privilege and a lack of empathy are two keys to the hot-cold empathy gap, and how we can reassure ourselves or others that we won’t make the same mistake again, and yet repeat the same behaviour.
How about the offer of a sweet treat, after being 100% convinced that you would eat salad for lunch. Something happens as you start getting hungry, you think about the deliciousness of a donut or a burger (or both?) over a salad, and that hot-hungry state overpowers the rational thinking you were able to do in your cold-full state when you made those salad-eating plans.
The hot-cold empathy gap is a fundamental part of human nature.
I’m not immune to it just because I know about it. That’s actually part of the problem, sometimes we think that because we have dealt with that situation before, experienced the bad feelings that come with making the ‘wrong’ decision, and acknowledged that, that we wouldn’t do that again.
This is why I’m the first to acknowledge that I could be caught up in a scam, I could be guilty of breaching lockdown restrictions for inane reasons, and I could be one of the ones (was, actually) who overlook adopt don’t shop because a particular breed of dog appears far more appealing than a mutt.
And if more people could acknowledge their own fallibility, we would have an easier time accepting in the heat of the moment when we are doing those ‘bad’ things, that maybe we shouldn’t do them — when people challenge us.
Instead, we have rampant protesters, idiotic trolls and me, struggling to not pull over and get McDonald’s even when I left the house 100% firm in the belief that there was no grease on my menu today.
What do you think? Let me know where you have felt the hot-cold empathy gap in your day to day life. And even better, really challenge yourself to find one of those uncomfortable experiences that you can look back on and know you behaved that way because of a heated state.
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