Human behaviour: some thoughts

I haven’t shared a journal style blog in a while and what with the way things are I thought now might be a good time to get some thoughts down on paper (or screen!).   Its day two for me of working from home [or at least it was when I wrote this], having been in work all last week but then developing a cough and temperature over the weekend leading to me taking the decision to stay at home.    This decision was far from simple, or at least felt much less simple than it should have been.    My thinking was that I had a little bit of a cough but it most likely was from my run in the cold earlier in the week.    I was looking to justify to myself how it would still be acceptable for me to go into work.   I didn’t like the thought of leaving my team to it, to them working in the office at my request on Monday but without me being there.   This felt like a betrayal of my team and therefore I needed to find a reason or justification which would make attending work acceptable.  My initial thinking paid little consideration to the potential impact I might have had going into work or to the signal I would be providing the team, showing them that it was ok to behave heroically and attend work in spite of illness, personal wellbeing and the potential risk to others.

ww2BombingsThe issue of risk to others is one that particularly interests me and possible the issue which helped me eventually make the correct decision to remain at home.    In thinking about this risk, the concept of near-misses and remote-misses in relation to the World War II bombing came to mind.    Heading into World War II psychologists were worried about the significant impact on mental health which widespread bombing of London would have.   There were fears that society would collapse.   The reality was far from this, as people came together and developed a community spirit and resilience, almost the opposite behaviour as to what was expected.   As psychologists sought to understand what happened they came upon the concept of near and remote misses.    A near miss meant a person physically felt a bomb go off and saw the aftermath in the dead, including friends and relatives.   These people suffered psychologically and often physically from bombings.   Remote misses referred to those people who heard the bombs fall and saw the damage to building but who did not experience any direct loss or see injuries and deaths first-hand.   The vast majority of Londoners fell into the Remote Miss category.   For these people, they were spared and may have seen themselves as lucky, and with each subsequent bombing they survived they felt more and more lucky, and even invincible, each subsequent bombing reinforced their belief that bombs didn’t impact on them.   It is through these people that the community spirit and resilience built despite all the death and destruction across London during the bombing.   Taking this idea and applying it to the Corona virus we have near misses in those who either contracted the virus or have loved ones who have contracted it, and even died from it, but we also have the remote misses in those who haven’t contracted the virus, or had mild symptoms or even who are infected but asymptomatic but who were aware through the news, social media, etc.   The remote misses, like in London, significantly outnumber the near misses and through this and the sense of invulnerability or “it won’t happen to me” which may have developed, may have been behaving counter to the guidance being offered by the government.   As such “social distancing” wasn’t being adhered to as it wasn’t important, or at least wasn’t perceived to be important.   To be clear, the concept of remote misses helps to explain behaviour but it doesn’t excuse it.  For me, in understanding behaviour and my own thinking, I was better able to question it and arrive at what I consider the “right” decision.

The other factor which eventually led me to the decision to stay away from school was the potential that my own behaviour might model for others my expectations.    If I would consider going into work more important than my own health and the potential risk to colleagues, then this communicates to others what I consider important and therefore what I expect of them.   Even if I verbalise the importance of everyone looking after their own health first, if I had gone to work this would have provided an indicator counter to what I had spoken.    I realised I needed to be conscious of the non-verbal cue my attendance, complete with a cough, would send.

Social media posts have been quick to condemn those who didn’t adhere to social distancing guidance however I am not sure such condemnation serves much purpose.   Now to be clear I am not condoning those flaunting government advice however I do think it is important to at least to try to gain some understanding as to how certain behaviours occurred.    Online for those occupying the moral high ground, their decision-making processes look simple and flawless.   These people knew what was right and acted accordingly.   Or at least that’s what social media would have us believe.    The reality I suspect is not so simple or at least for me it isn’t, as the decision to not go into work with what I considered a minor cough, a decision with a hopefully obvious “right” behaviour, caused me to stop and think and to wrestle with my own thoughts.

As it was, I stayed home, doing what was the right thing.   Hopefully the next time a similar dilemma arises I will also do the right thing, however for now I am more conscious of how easy it is for us as human beings to consider, to rationalise and justify, but despite this still manage to arrive at the wrong answer.

 

You can read a little about direct hits, near misses and remote misses here.

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Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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