Why we fail to act (sins of complicity)

In the wake of the Ft. Hood massacre we are now hearing evidence of a very troubled man–trouble that it appears many observed over the last few years of the Maj. General’s life. Some of his former teachers and supervisors took note of his strange behavior, his loner tendencies, his rages. They even mused about his possible move into psychosis. Despite these notations, they moved him on to a place they thought (so the reporting is going) he would not get into trouble. In the words of one person, where his dangerousness would be limited by the number of mental health professionals serving alongside him.

Lest we pick on the military alone, we could level charges of ignoring problems on those around Madoff, the mortgage crisis, and any other recent scandal.

The truth is this: we see things that need our attention; our voice. And yet, we often fail to act. Why? Here are some reasons:

  1. We’re not sure what we are seeing or feeling. We have trouble adding up the problem
  2. We don’t want to make a mistake and look foolish
  3. We hesitate due to empathy
  4. We don’t want to intrude on the rights of others
  5. We assume someone else is more responsible
  6. We don’t want to make waves, we want to avoid conflict
  7. We think the person we are concerned about it will take care of it on their own
  8. We deem the situation not relating to our own interests
  9. We underestimate that Satan intends to deceive us into doing nothing so that evil may reign

I’ve had a couple of experiences where I didn’t act and should have–a client “playing” around with life threatening behaviors, a friend beginning an emotional affair with someone not her husband. After the fact, everything looks clear and obvious. Duh, hospitalize the client, confront the friend. And yet in both cases I acted but more slowly than I should. If there is one big reason: I think things were fine in the past and so they will be fine in the future, and so I fail to adequately assess the present.



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Filed under Cognitive biases, counseling, Cultural Anthropology, Psychology, Uncategorized

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