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Misfortune and the Blame Game

Photo by Danita Delimont available at https://dissolve.com/stock-photo/Thousands-king-penguins-are-packed-together-second-royalty-free-image/101-D256-26-913

It seems to be a peculiar past-time in this country to moan and find fault with everything and blame anyone but ourselves for our mishaps and misfortune. 

I was watching a television programme last night about Britain’s bizarre weather conditions in 2020 and what struck me, actually you could have slapped me round the face with a wet kipper, was the behaviour of people in the heatwave of April 2020.  An extraordinary heatwave saw people flocking to parks and to the beach.  Some scenes looked more akin to those pictures we see of seals or penguins on a remote island where there isn’t an inch to move without stumbling over the next incumbent, all staking their claim to a little parcel of land on which they can sunbathe or nest.  ‘Weren’t we supposed to be social distancing and in lockdown’? Of course, we blame the government for lockdown 2 and the tier system.  How unfair it is that we can’t see our loved ones, oh the mental anguish when we miss school, or have to learn online or get made redundant or our business goes belly up.  But flock to the seaside we must, go to the park and mingle is a necessity, rush to the pub and drink and make merry, have parties and raves and forget about social distancing and that awful thing that the government keeps wittering on about.  Let’s blame the police for dishing out fines, its so unfair and let’s even blame the hospitals, that’s where my loved one caught Corona virus.  Yes, the government were to blame for suggesting that we should ‘eat out to help out’, but did we really think it was suddenly fine to plunder food from every outlet that provided a cut-price meal? Like lemmings, people rushed to pack out restaurants and pubs in search of a culinary bargain and many got more than they bargained for. ‘Two for the price of one’ had a new meaning.

None of this of course is a new phenomenon; the virus might be, the behaviour is not.  We speed along the road and when caught by the police ask them if they haven’t got anything better to do than stop us.  We complain about the NHS but carry on drinking lots, eating rubbish and failing to exercise.  Our illness in the morning is due to the bad kebab, not the large amount of alcohol we consumed.  We moan about our rubbish grades, somehow expecting that the parties, the staying in bed all day, the failure to attend, the work commitments and all the other hubris will get us an A grade or at least a B.  It’s the way the lecturers teach, not our lack of commitment, that’s the problem here, ‘oh and I’m paying for this rubbish’.  In football, we blame the referee for not giving a foul or for giving a foul when we are convinced it wasn’t one and yet watch players carry on diving all over the place rolling around as if they’ve been scythed down by the grim reaper and then chewed up by Jaws before being magically revived by the miraculous sponge.  More at home with an Equity Card, players constantly seek to bamboozle the referee, it’s no wonder they sometimes get it wrong.  We moan about the stampede at the start of the shop sales, not that that’s been a problem this year, well not yet anyway, but we are part of the stampede, shoving and trampling over others to get to the much reduced bargain.  We lament the demise of the high street, watching the tumbleweed blow past as we scuttle away to our laptops, pads and phones to do a bit more online shopping only rushing out in droves (social distancing ignored) to take advantage of the demise of yet another retail outlet.

Whilst ministers are trying to hammer out a Brexit deal, posturing and moaning about the intransigence of the other side, they probably secretly hope that there will be no deal.  That way we can blame the Europeans and the Europeans can blame us. But are we not to blame for this monstrosity; we voted for it?  We live in a democracy and are rightly proud of it and yet Trump like we are quick to point out that we personally didn’t vote for that bit that we don’t like, and the vote was probably rigged anyway.  Having realised our error, we still voted in the government that said it would get it done and we didn’t care about the price.  Let’s hope that a return to the troubles in Ireland doesn’t become a reality, but if it does, it’ll no doubt be the fault of the Irish. Our sense of history only stretches back to when we saved the world from the Nazis.

We need to look to ourselves and our own action and behaviour before we start blaming everyone and everything around us.  Yes, misfortune does fall on some of us and sometimes it isn’t our fault but like it or not, many of the problems are caused by us and we compound the problems by blaming others.  If we fail to grip the notion that we have responsibility, then history will judge us as a nation that moaned about everything and did nothing but cause calamitous problems for ourselves and the rest of the world.

Intolerance, frustration and stupidity

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6883579/

‘Stupid is, as stupid does’ a phrase that many people will recall from that brilliant film Forrest Gump, although as I understand the phrase was originally coined in the 19th century. I will return to the phrase a little later but my starting point for this blog is my colleague @jesjames50’s self-declared blog rant and an ensuing WhatsApp (other media are available) conversation resulting in a declaration that ‘maybe we are becoming less tolerant’.

So, I ask myself this, what do we mean by tolerant or intolerant and more importantly what behaviours should we tolerate?  To some extent my thoughts were driven by two excellent papers (Thomson, 1971, 1985) set as reading for assessment questions for our first-year criminology students. The papers describe ethical dilemmas and take us through a moral maze where the answers, which are so seemingly obvious, are inevitably not so. 

As a starting point I would like you to imagine that you frequent a public house in the countryside at weekends (I know that its not possible at the moment, but remember that sense of normality). You frequently witness another regular John drinking two to three pints of beer and then leave, getting into his car and driving home. John does not think he is incapable of driving home safely.  John may or may not be over the proscribed limit (drink driving), but probably is. Would you be able to make some excuse for him, would you tolerate the behaviour?

Let us imagine that John had a lot to drink on one night and being sensible had a friend drive him and his car home. The next morning, he wakes up and drives to work and is over the proscribed limit, but thinks he’s fine to drive. Would you be able to make some excuse for him, would you tolerate the behaviour?

Of course, the behaviour becomes absolutely intolerable if he has a collision and kills someone, I think we would all agree on that.  Or even if he simply injures someone, I think we would say we cannot tolerate this behaviour.  Of course, our intolerance becomes even greater if we know or are in somehow related to the person killed or injured.  Were we to know that John was on the road and we or someone we know was also driving on the same road, would we not be fearful of the consequences of John’s actions? The chances of us coming across John are probably quite slim but nonetheless, the question still applies. Would we tolerate what he is doing and continue with our own journey regardless?

Now imagine that John’s wife Jane is driving a car (might as well keep the problems in one family) and Jane through a moment of inattention, speeds in a residential street and knocks over a child, killing them.  Can we make excuses for Jane?  How tolerant would you be if the child were related to you? Inattention, we’ve all been there, how many times have you driven along a road, suddenly aware of your speed but unsure as to what the speed limit is?  How often have you driven that all familiar journey and at its end you are unable to recall the journey?

The law of course is very clear in both the case of John and Jane. Driving whilst over the proscribed limit is a serious offence and will lead to a ban from driving, penalty points and a fine or even imprisonment. Death by dangerous driving through drink or drugs will lead to a prison sentence. Driving without due care and attention will lead to a fine and penalty points, death by careless driving is likely to result in a prison sentence.

So I ask this, what is the difference between the above and people’s behaviours during the Covid-19 pandemic?

Just to be clear, contracting Covid-19 may or may not kill you, of course we know the risk factors go up dependant on age, ethnicity and general health but even the youngest, healthiest have been killed by this virus. Covid-19 can cause complications, known as long Covid.  Only now are we starting to see its long-term impact on both young and old people alike.  

Now imagine that Michael has been out to the pub the night before and through social contact has contracted Covid but is unaware that he has the disease.  Is it acceptable him to ignore the rules in the morning on social distancing or the wearing of a mask?  What is the difference between him and John driving to work.  What makes this behaviour more acceptable than John’s?

Imagine Bethany has symptoms but thinks that she may or may not have Covid or maybe just a cold.  Should you tolerate her going to work? What if she says she must work to feed her family, can John not use the same excuse? If John’s behaviour is intolerable why should we tolerate this?

If people forget to move out of the way or get too close, what makes this behaviour any different to Jane’s?  Of course, we see the immediate impact of Jane’s inattention whereas the actions of our pedestrians on the street or in a supermarket are unseen except by those close to the person that dies resultant of the inattention.  Should we tolerate this behaviour?

To my colleagues that debated whether they have become less tolerant I say, no you have not. There are behaviours that are acceptable and those that are not, just because this is a new phenomenon does not negate the need for people to adhere to what are acceptable behaviours to protect others.

To those of you that have thought it was a good idea to go to a party or a pub before lockdown or do not think the rules need apply to you. You are worse than John and Jane combined.  It is akin to getting drunk, jumping in your cars and racing the wrong way down a busy motorway. ‘Stupid is as stupid does’ and oh boy, some people really are stupid.

References

Thomson, Judith Jarvis, (1971), ‘A Defense of Abortion,’ Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1, 1: 47-66

Thomson, Judith Jarvis, (1985), ‘The Trolley Problem,’ The Yale Law Journal, 94, 6 : 1395-1415,

Covid-Universities and what if

https://blackadderquotes.com/final-scene-blackadder-goes-forth

Over the past week or so there have been some mutterings about whether it is safe to open up universities. There is the advice from the scientific advisors (Universities get some Indie SAGE advice on reopening campuses in September)  and some thoughts from academics ‘Why universities must move all teaching online this autumn’.

As we move closer to the start of term, so my dread of what is ahead comes into sharper focus. I try to imagine what it would be like and try to reassure myself that the risk assessments have been done and the reassurances that the universities are Covid safe are true rather than simply fantasy and wishful thinking.

In this safe environment I imagine that the number of students and staff on campuses will be carefully managed as it is with many large stores.

I imagine that all staff and students will be wearing face coverings. This is not for protection of themselves, as the use of coverings is a somewhat altruistic venture, I cover my face and protect you and you cover yours and protect me.

I imagine that all thoroughfares will be marked and monitored. Social distancing is important, and we need to be at least a metre apart.

I imagine that the classrooms will be laid out in such a way that social distancing can be maintained and that the classrooms will be well ventilated, even in the middle of winter. I imagine all the chairs and desks and any other equipment will be wiped down after each session.

I imagine that face to face teaching will be limited and interactions with multiple groups of students will be severely curtailed to ensure lecturers are not put at unnecessary risk.  I imagine each class will comprise only a few students to minimise risk.

I imagine that anyone who is symptomatic will not attend a university and will after being tested self-isolate.  I imagine that all the people they have been in contact with will do the same for a whole, boring, 14 days.

I imagine that the universities’ management will be at each university, leading from the front.  They will be checking to ensure the safety of students and staff.  They will be mixing with staff and students, receiving feedback and continuously monitoring. I imagine the safety of the students and staff is paramount.

And then I think, what if…

What if campuses are a free for all.  Students can come and go as they please, there is no monitoring of volumes.  Or what if there is, but it is impossible to enforce with limited staff to do so. And those staff tasked with this endeavour are at greater risk due to the proximity with large volumes of students.

What if people decide not to wear face coverings or having got into the building decide to take them off or several people are exempt for some reason or another. Altruism has gone out of the window. I’m a criminologist and I know that people break the rules for all sorts of reasons and the only certainty is that some people will break the rules.

What if social distancing becomes all too difficult.  Many of us have experienced it in stores. A one-way system works for most, but a significant number just don’t abide by it, for whatever reason. People break rules.

What if the social distancing in classes is impossible, there just isn’t enough classes to maintain it with the volume of students on the course.  What if ventilation is impossible, other than air conditioning, some classes are in the middle of buildings. Who will clean the chairs and equipment after each class? Go to a restaurant and tables and chairs are wiped down after each use so who will do it at a university?

What if lecturers have to teach multiple groups face to face as there are not enough staff to spread the load. Teaching in a classroom for two hours multiple times in a day with different groups each time must surely expose lecturers to much greater risk.

What if students are of the age group where they are more likely to be asymptomatic?  How many that are infected might be at a university, spreading the virus around campus and around the locality.  Even if they are symptomatic, how likely are they to self-isolate? Judging by the street parties and illegal raves reported on the news, there is a good chance that some will break the rules. Let’s be realistic, if you are only likely to suffer affects akin to a cold, why would you be that bothered about social distancing or self-isolation?

And finally, what if all managers avail themselves of the much-vaunted government advice, work from home if you can. Leadership from the rear, the bottom line is more important than the safety of others.  We can of course dress this up in management psychobabble about what the students need.

Never mind, ‘Tally ho and all of that sort of thing and over the top we go’*.

* For those of you that are lost at this point it might be worth a visit to the last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth.

Social Psychology in a Time of Crisis

I am currently sitting in an empty classroom because, although face to face teaching is not officially suspended until tomorrow, none of my seminar students have turned up. In this rather depressing situation, however, there is much for a psychologist to reflect upon, particularly the process of social influence.

First there is the phenomenon of obedience to authority. In his seminal series of experiments, Milgram (1974) was trying to understand the destructive power of obedience; the tendency of people to do what they are told even when it is morally wrong and they know it to be so. The current situation is different. While it is always important to question science (as anyone who has studied CRI1007) should be well aware!) large scale public health measures have no hope of working unless everyone obeys. Milgram did not just explore how obedient people can be – he also investigated the conditions under which obedience is strongest. One of the factors that enhanced obedience was an aura of scientific authority. Participants were more likely to obey when they were instructed by a person in a white coat, who worked in a smart laboratory in a reputable university and who made reference to science, research and experiments, than when they were confronted by someone in scruffy clothes in a run-down building in a tatty back street. Boris Johnson has a poor record of telling the truth and inspiring trust. It is no coincidence that he is currently delivering his daily briefings flanked by his chief medical officer and chief scientific advisor.

Then there is the phenomenon of panic buying. There is probably a deep-seated evolutionary drive that causes us to hoard food in times of potential shortage. Just as the onset of autumn drives squirrels to bury hazelnuts, so the mention of self-isolation drives humans to buy pasta and tinned tomatoes (or potatoes in the case of one of my elderly relatives). My grandmother, who was her family’s main breadwinner through the Second World War, kept a stash of sugar under her bed until the day she went into a care home. And I guess Freud might have had something to say about the fact that the items we are hoarding most fervently are toilet rolls!

Evolutionary drives are, however, not the whole story and social influences play a part too. We panic buy because everyone else is panic buying. In his research on conformity, Asch (1956) identified two main reasons why people went along with the crowd: some just wanted to fit in and be socially accepted (compliance); others doubted their own judgment and believed that everyone else must be correct (conversion). The latter process is helping to drive the current retail crisis – people think “everyone else is panic buying, so there must be a good reason to do so, so I need to do it too!”

Asch was investigating the influence of majorities but minorities can be influential too, often for similar reasons (Moscovici, 1976). As if we didn’t have enough disease to worry about, I have just passed a screen warning students about outbreaks of mumps in British universities. The reason why mumps is on the rise among students is that 20 years ago, when the current generation of students were babies, a small minority of scientific opinion suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Backed by authoritative sounding research and confident and charismatic individuals, it led parents to doubt mainstream opinion and reject vaccination for their children.

Another topic which has puzzled social psychologists for many years is that of altruism. Are we ever truly, selflessly altruistic? Or are we good to others because it has rewards for us? Looking at the Facebook group for the village where I live, there are some heart-breaking accounts of selfishness over the last few days. The grandmother desperately appealing for Calpol for a 5-month-old baby with chicken pox, because every shop she has tried has been cleared out by panic buyers. And the farm that sells eggs by the side of the road with an honesty box that is now asking customers to phone with orders because someone has stolen all the eggs and all the cash. But there are some lovely examples of altruism too. People offering to shop or collect prescriptions for the elderly and vulnerable. People offering to cook meals for health professionals. People setting up Facebook and WhatsApp groups in order to maintain social contact. And the wonderful woman who offered free mango chutney to anyone in the village, just because she was making a batch and wanted to share the love!

We live in interesting times! Stay safe, keep calm and use this opportunity to read and reflect.

References

Asch, S.E. (1956) Studies of independence and submission to group pressure: 1 A minority of one against a unanimous majority. In Psychological Monographs, 70, (9) (Whole No. 416).

Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to Authority. New York: Harper and Row.

Moscovici, S. (1976). Social influence and social change. London: Academic Press.

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