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COTTON – Tell me more about that


October 19, 2015
By Dorothy Cotton

I recently listened to a speaker from Singapore talk about the Sydney Café and Charlie Hebdo shootings at an international police psychology conference in the southern US. The discussion became focused on the need to involve the citizenry in preventing terrorism. On the surface, this seemed like a good idea.

I was thinking about the need for people to be more aware of their surroundings and suspicious behaviour, how we need to do a better job at not alienating various religious and ethnic groups, why it is a good idea for people to be on speaking terms with police and report potential threats, how to better implement the principles of community or contemporary policing… when suddenly I realized that most of the people in the room interpreted “involving the citizens” as meaning “everyone should have a gun.” <1>

I nearly fell off my chair. I see this kind of attitude on Fox TV when I am visiting the US but I really did not expect it in this context. I am not the best person at hiding my emotions or disguising my reaction to things; the guy sitting next to me looked askance and said, “You must be from Canada.” Indeed.

I am not going to argue the pros and cons of gun control here, as I expect my credentials as a psychologist will not hold up against you readers in this area. The main thing that kept going through my mind was “how can you think that? How can you really believe that is the answer?”

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I tried to put myself in the shoes of the person who made the Canada comment; I even engaged him in conversation later just out of curiosity. Who was this guy? Well, he was short and quite fat; he was white and probably a decade or so younger than me; he was likely Jewish, given his name and a few comments he made about his background. He was from New York City (not Texas!). Unfortunately that was all the snooping I was able to do over a coffee break.

Did he have some gun-related history? A family member had been shot, perhaps? Maybe he actually came from Texas originally? Had he been bullied as a child as he was short, fat and Jewish? I just couldn’t imagine.

That, of course, is the problem we face so often. It really is hard to imagine, even when you want to, why someone thinks what they do. It is so hard to see things from their point of view. This psychologist was in many ways not that different from me. He was white (as I am), a psychologist, middle class, not that much younger than me… and if I can’t imagine why he feels the way he feels, how can I really relate to how a Syrian refugee might feel about something? A poor Jamaican from Jane and Finch?

My well-to-do relatives who have never come in contact with the type of people I dealt with daily in my work in the correctional system? A heroin user from the Lower East Side? A gay 12 year old? A holocaust survivor? Even my on-the-surface very similar next door neighbors who spent a couple of decades in Qatar?

The ability to put your self in someone else’s shoes is a uniquely human characteristic (although my dog owner friends think their dogs can do this — but putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is different from recognizing and appreciating how they are feeling. Dogs, as far as I can tell, can do the latter but not the former.)

Our attitudes and beliefs are a function of many things: our age, gender, cohort, SES, cultural and ethnic background, personal experiences and personality. Our attitudes are strongly influenced by the people around us, and are most strongly influenced by people who we perceive as being similar to us – but the moral of this part of the story is that as people vary, so do attitudes.

For those of us who routinely deal with people who have very different life experiences from us — and thus very different attitudes and beliefs – this can be a challenge. The first step in the process is to simply notice and acknowledge that people might not see things the same way you do. As long as you assume people see things the way you do, you will never be able to figure out how they see things.

The danger is that because people act on their perceptions of things rather than what you might consider “reality,” if you don’t clue in that their perceptions are different, you are going to miss the fact that their reactions also differ. Personally, I think reality is grossly over-rated. I am not even convinced it actually exists.

One area in which we know police tend to see things differently is around the perception of threat. If you spend a lot of time with people who you think might be out to cause you harm, you might be inclined to see danger everywhere. If you see danger, then you act as if there is danger – whether there actually is danger becomes kind of immaterial.

Sometimes, differences of perception just make for interesting cocktail party chatter. (“You liked that movie? I hated it!”) Sometimes it leads to argument. (“How could you possible vote for that %^& political party!??!”) Sometimes it leads to a whole lot of misunderstanding.

One of the speakers at the conference was talking about using integrity tests in selecting employees. These kinds of measures typical ask questions like “Have you ever stolen anything in your workplace? ” or “Have you ever broken the law?”

The person giving the presentation works in a certain southwestern US state and said that, after using these measures for a while, he concluded that they did not particularly identify people with a lack of integrity very well. They did very clearly identify Mormons, whom he described as scrupulously honest.

So the over-the top “dishonest” person answered “true” to these questions because he had accidentally taken a pencil home from the office once and also had gotten a parking ticket. The person with no morals answered “no” to most questions about bad behaviour because while he had taken a whole office worth of supplies home, he figured that is simply a job perk — and his DUI conviction was so long ago it didn’t really count.

It all has to do with differences in perception, experiences and interpretation. In this case, the speaker attributed the differences in reported “honesty” to religion — but it might equally be age, experience, personality or any number of other things.

What’s the take home message here? I’d like to say it’s that the guy from NYC is nuts. I certainly do not agree with him. At the same time, I guess I have to say that likely things look very different to him than me.

It reminds me that my favorite phrase as a psychologist is, “Tell me more about that.” It’s a very handy statement. I use it a lot. It works better than “Are you out of your %^&! mind?” if you want to get an idea of how people are seeing things.

<1> For the record, this is NOT what the guy from Singapore meant!


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