The mindfulness people say there are two aspects to every experience. There’s the experience itself: being sick; missing the bus; losing your glasses. Then there’s the narrative we add on to that. “Why me?” “I’m so stupid.” “It’s not fair.”
The story we tell ourselves turns a transient irritation into suffering.
The Covid-19 Level 5 plateau of cases is frustrating. The blame-storming that follows adds anger, which is far more unpleasant.
Mostly, I let it go over my head and follow the Buddhist advice. Being angry with someone else is like picking up a hot coal to throw at them. The first person you burn is yourself.
Also, being angry at people you don’t even know is completely pointless. They’re off living their life oblivious to your emotions.
But I found this week’s scapegoating of a few dozen people drinking outside a particularly counterproductive exercise.
In the first place, doing anything outside is a low-risk activity. In the second, just like missing the bus, far more damage is done in the telling than in the tale.
Every time someone shared a picture of the drinkers on Facebook, on a media website; or when an official or politician made a moralistic declaration, they made the situation worse.
It’s not just about making everyone else unnecessarily angry, but talking about people drinking outside encourages people to drink outside. Yes that’s right: the more we complain about people breaking rules, the more we encourage people to break rules.
“That makes no sense!” you cry. Yet think of the child whose greatest defence is “but everyone else is doing it”. It’s called normalisation.
Normalisation is a super power. You can get human beings to do anything – good or evil – if you persuade them it’s normal.
Women will paint alarming eyebrows on their forehead and rip their pubic hair out. Men will chop off their neighbours’ heads because they’re from a different tribe. People will litter streets already littered, drink wine every night because it’s “wine o’clock”, or go off the booze for November. Why? Because that’s what other people are doing.
For the RTÉ personalities who attended an “impromptu” party for a departing colleague, they have made resignations for similar offences by politicians normal. I did warn journalists repeatedly their bloodlust for scalps would backfire. Perhaps a new norm will emerge in which an apology instead of a resignation is sufficient for “errors of judgement”.
Meanwhile, back in spring the person who wore a face mask in the shop was a weirdo. By autumn anyone who didn’t was a reprobate. In just a few months a profoundly alien act – covering the face - became a social norm.
Experts know precisely how to subtly change norms or, to use the term most famously employed by behavioural economist Cass Sunstein, “nudge” people into better habits.
A famous experiment on the right and wrong ways to discourage bad behaviour was conducted in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.
This was a forest 200 million years ago. As its trees died off they were buried under earth and volcanic ash, becoming “petrified” or solidified.
Today it is a barren landscape covered with formations of brilliantly-coloured minerals, preserved as logs and wood chippings. Thousands of people visit the park and alas, some of them take home a sample of the beautiful mineralised wood as a souvenir.
The park authorities put up signs asking people to stop doing this, but rather weirdly, fossil theft increased.
Psychologist Robert Cialdini conducted an experiment in which he and his team placed differently worded signs around the park to see what worked best to reduce theft.
One said: “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the petrified forest.” The result? Theft increased – four-fold.
Another read: “Please don’t remove the petrified wood chips.” Theft reduced.
The first sign informed the public that lots of others were taking wood. And sure, if others were doing it, why not take some yourself?
This phenomenon is so well recognised it’s the secret to negative campaigning in politics. The more a politician is forced to deny an allegation, the more people believe it.
That’s why Joe Biden is smartly mostly ignoring Trump allegations about the election. Some of his supporters want him to attack back, but he knows ignoring is more effective.
So what does this mean about Covid rule-breakers?
It means that to a reasonable extent officials, politicians and yes, the media, should say as little as possible about them. Yes, that means the media should actually engage in self-censorship. Outraged headlines and moral panics makes us believe lots of people are breaking rules, so why shouldn’t we? This RTÉ row will do terrible damage, as many will wonder why they’re bothering to seclude themselves.
The upshot is that it’s far better for influencers, be they politicians, officials or journalists, to say as little as possible about deviant behaviour and focus on those who are doing the right thing. Of course, if I told any editor to replace photos of “revellers” with photos of quiet streets, they wouldn’t be a bit happy. They have a duty to report – and anyway, every other paper is doing it.
But you can do your bit. Don’t share that photo. Don’t add your comment of complaint. Feelings and behaviour are contagious, so spread good behaviour, not Covid-19.