Parsing Denial: When We Know Better But Do It Anyway
Here’s a chilling news story, about a father who was texting while driving and rear-ended a pickup, killing one daughter and injuring the other.
This story makes me hyperventilate a little.
Then it makes me think about denial.
What is it that makes us do stupid things we know are dangerous? With all the information out there about the dangers of texting and driving, everything we hear about our brain’s inability to be effective at multitasking, all the highway fatalities we hear about daily, why do people still think they can text and drive? I can’t wrap my mind around that.
What is denial, really?
We know what it is, but what is it? I typed “denial” into a scientific journals database and results included articles on denial and cancer, heart disease, drug addiction, head injury, and one theoretical paper arguing that denial-like processes are at the core of the cognitive coping mechanisms we have evolved as humans.
Could be. Sometimes denial works for us. One 1980 study of cardiovascular patients compared people who denied their heart attacks were any big deal with people who were more realistic. According to this report, people who were in denial were less stressed out and miserable than the non-deniers. They also were equally compliant with their post-care treatment, and feeling pretty good at a three-month follow up. (However this data was self-reported by people in denial, so make of that what you will.)
A 1989 paper in Social Science and Medicine argued that if denial helps families of head injury victims face their new reality, so what? As long as they’re doing what they’re supposed to. Besides, There is also a very prevalent assumption that whenever there is a discrepancy between the perceptions of the family and those of the health professionals, the family is always wrong and in denial. Just because you’re an optimist doesn’t mean the sun isn’t shining.
Denial is not good for addicts—it can be an impenetrable wall between doing and kicking. In the Journal of Drug Addiction Treatment, a couple of Harvard psychiatrists suggest treating denial with ambivalence. Rather than taking an obvious stand about the addiction, they suggest counselors erode denial with noncommittal conversation about life and drugs, meanwhile delicately planting seeds of reality.
Still, in these cases, denial is in response to an existing problem. Road texters are in denial about the possibility that something bad could happen in the future.
To go Woody Allen on you, road texters seem to be in denial about mortality. Or, to be less Woody Allen and more road rage, consider the suggestion in the paper on head injury that when something carries social stigma–such as mental impairment–denial is a way to resist acquiring devalued status and preserve self esteem.
So maybe, as we have all muttered under our breath, people ignore the dangers of texting and driving because they’re afraid if they don’t, they won’t seem important or adequately busy.
That’s a little embarrassing, isn’t it? Risking lives because it fulfills an image you want to have of yourself?
In the 1970s, the American Cancer Society created a terrific poster campaign: SMOKING IS VERY GLAMOROUS, SMOKING IS VERY SOPHISTICATED, SMOKING IS DEBONAIR, with photos of people who were none of those things. These posters put us in that ambivalent place. We kinda thought smoking was glamorous and debonair, but here was a seed of reality. (I finally quit smoking not because cigarettes might give me cancer or lung disease, but because they definitely would give me wrinkles. Perhaps those posters planted that seed.)
AT&T has created a powerful public service announcement called The Last Text. Make yourself sit through it. The most important part of the video is the texts that changed lives forever.
where r u?
Simple, mundane nothings.
Now, you could watch this video and think, “Yeah, but those are just silly kids. I’m an adult, I’ve been driving for years.”
How can I put this ambivalently…?
Do you think the father who killed his daughter considered himself a good driver?
Dembling, S. (2011). Parsing Denial: When We Know Better But Do It Anyway. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 7, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/research/2011/parsing-denial-when-we-know-better-but-do-it-anyway/