In almost every class I teach, there’s one lecture portion that’s — well, it’s a little touchy-feely. It’s a segment I have a hard time doing without tearing up a little, and sometimes it gets to my students too. But the emotions are almost beside the point. Believe it or not, there’s a scientific and rational reason I do this emotional thing. And it’s not what you might think.
Before I tell you more about that, let me draw your attention to an excellent article my friend Jeff Meek pointed to a few weeks ago: The Frozen Calm of Normalcy Bias. The article talks about the way groups of people behave in a crisis, and it’s really a very useful read if you have time. If you don’t, here’s the excerpt I wanted to talk about today. Pay special attention to the final sentence.
This information — that the present disaster will harm you, yes you, so take action — is the hardest to accurately disseminate. People mill, asking for opinions, because they want to be told that everything is fine. They will keep asking, and delaying, until they get the answer they want. In a completely alien emergency situation — such as a downed, flaming plane — people think of the likelihood that they’re mistaken about the nature of the emergency, and the consequences for screwing up if they take personal action. Although early warning systems, alarms, and alerts proliferate, very few things manage to get through to specific people that they are in personal danger, that they are on their own, and that they need to take steps to save themselves.
In my classes, I refer to this human tendency to mill around and ask questions as “asking permission to save your own life.” The tragedy is, not everyone faces a danger that gives them time to do that.
That’s one of many reasons it’s important to think about survival issues ahead of time.
- How important is it, to you, that you avoid being embarrassed?
- Are you willing to step outside social norms to get away from danger?
- How willing are you to speak up and take the lead when a group of people around you seem to be ignoring a danger you believe is real?
- Are willing to do whatever it takes to save your own life — even if no one else tells you that you can?
It’s that last point that gets me. Remember the story of Sarah McKinley, the young mother who defended herself from a home invasion in Oklahoma in 2012. McKinley, then 18 years old, was home alone with her 3-month-old baby when she heard someone trying to break down her front door. Terrified, she armed herself with a pistol and a shotgun, then called 911. She would be on the phone with the dispatcher for over 20 minutes while she waited for officers to arrive. During that time, she and the dispatcher had the following exchange.
McKinley: “… is it okay to shoot him if he comes in this door?”
Dispatcher: “I can’t tell you that you can do that, but you do what you have to do to protect your baby.”
Yup. With her life in danger, her child threatened, criminals trying to break into her home and no sign that the police would arrive in time, McKinley asked someone else to give her permission to save her own life. And she was amazingly fortunate. Because she had time to ask the question. And because the person she asked was willing to put her own job on the line to tell McKinley what she most needed to hear.
That human tendency to ask permission from others — we all have it. It’s normal. Not weird, not weak, not stupid. Just … human. If we’re going to do something outside the social norm, we want someone else to tell us it’s okay, that it’s the right thing to do, that they approve. We want permission.
Without that permission, some people freeze and many people delay responding to situations they know are dangerous. With it, they’re free to solve the problem for themselves.