I got a call the other morning from Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids fame. Among the things we chatted about was her concept of “worst-first thinking,” which she saw in Colorado District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson’s decision to deny summary judgment to the Cinemark Theater that failed to have armed guards in place just in case a madman with guns happened to drop by to shoot up the place.
The judge there held within the realm of foreseeable the one-in-a-million act of a crazy, because the worst, most bizarre, least foreseeable possibility was, in his view, foreseeable. Lenore saw worst-first thinking at work. Notably, Ken White at Popehat thought the judge was correct.
Lenore’s concept is a variation on the physician’s zebra rule: when you hear the sound of hoofbeats, don’t assume it’s a zebra. Expect the normal, unless there are reasons to think otherwise. Don’t look to the outlier, the one-in-a-million shot, simply because it’s within the realm of possibility. Don’t leap to the worst-case scenario when every probability suggests otherwise. It will make your head do crazy things, have terrible thoughts, and react to a relatively benign world in strange ways.
Lenore offers an example:
Well, it’s not that I want to see MORE Worst-First thinking out there. I’m just looking for examples of it — examples of incidents when people, confronted by normal behavior (like the kindergarteners in the post below this one) AUTOMATICALLY interpret it in the WORST way FIRST. E.g, “This is perverted!” rather than, “This is probably quite normal.”
The most salient example I have of this I may have already told you about. A young man at a grocery store passed a mom and a kid in an aisle and waved at the child. Nice.
He happened upon them in another aisle and waved again. When he got to the third aisle, the manager came up and asked him to leave.
WHAT could the young man have been doing that was bad? “Grooming” the child for a later assignation? Grooming the mom so she’d trust him and let him, a total stranger, come over and babysit? Seducing the toddler in his shopping cart seat? But “Worst First” thinking means imagining the most repulsive possibility, no matter how outlandish, and acting as if it were already happening.
There is a world out there that dwells on stories of fear and horror. It’s not that terrible things can’t, or don’t, happen, but that they have so skewed our perspectives into interpreting ordinary things as threats and dangers.
Some will perceive the guy in Lenore’s example as “creepy,” rather than just a guy trying to be nice and friendly in a normal, non-threatening way. Hell, I’ve never heard of “grooming” before, but then I’m neither aware or not wary of the most tricky ways of pedophiles. If you do, ask why? Sure, a mind can wander down a path where the guy, a stranger, asks to babysit, whisks the kid away to a life of porn and slavery. But would you let a stranger babysit your kid? Come on, you wouldn’t do it under any circumstances. So the whole thing is silly.
But Lenore’s point to me is that worst-first thinking has pervaded societal thinking, not just the insanity of bubble-wrapping mommies who can’t bear their baby scraping a knee, or the busybody who calls the cops because a child is having fun somewhere. Lenore saw it in Judge Jackson’s acceptance of the “possibility” that a madman will strike, enough so to put a litigant through trial because it could be foreseeable.
It also pervades the thinking, or at the very least the rationalization, of police in their decision-making. We have become suckers for rhetorical explanations that leap to the conclusion that someone is a threat, or has engaged in conduct so suspicious as to justify their seizure and termination of normal human interaction.
Note, I didn’t say constitutional rights, because that’s lawyer-speak. I mean such ordinary things as asking a cop “why?”, and getting beaten in response. Or not complying with a command that makes no sense to a guy minding his own business, walking down the street on the way to see his grandma, and being gunned down. Who knew that refusing to follow some seemingly inconsequential order would warrant a death sentence?
The worst-first thinker would. And the worst-first thinker would have no trouble accepting that this is how it should be. Smile at a kid? That means there’s a one-in-a-million chance he’s a ped, so let’s presume that to be the case and act upon it. Because better safe than sorry.
The weird thing about that old saying, better safe than sorry, is that we find it so incredibly easy to project onto the behavior of others, while realizing how ridiculous it is to have it projected onto our own behaviors. After all, we know we’re not a threat. Not to a child. Not to a cop. Not to anyone.
But hey, the other people don’t know us, and can’t be absolutely certain of our motives or actions. Aren’t they entitled to assume the worst first about us? And if so, aren’t they entitled to act upon it, whether to have the grocery guy throw us out for “grooming” toddlers, or tell the cop to arrest us for letting our babies play outdoors? And should we engage the officer to say that we pose no threat, isn’t he entitled to leap to the conclusion that we could be the one who violates the First Rule of Policing? And if, God forbid, our slacks slip on our waist as we’re talking, isn’t it fair that the officer assume we have a gun in our waistband and kill us?
It sounds fairly nuts when laid out in terms of perspective, but Lenore Skenazy is right, we have, as a society, let worst-first thinking pervade our perception of the world. We have grown inured to accepting the possibility, no matter how remote, of bad things happening. We no longer accept the proposition that we prefer to live in a slightly-less-than-perfect world where a bad thing could, possibly, occur, but we choose to see a friendly smile and wave as just a friendly smile and wave. We choose not to shoot first and ask questions later, just in case. We don’t hear hoofbeats and think zebra.