The Zebra of Worst-First Thinking

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.




8 thoughts on “The Zebra of Worst-First Thinking

  1. Wheeze the People™

    Worst-first thinking seems to be an epidemic. Three weeks ago, my 3-year-old son and I went to our favorite nail salon for a father-son pedicure-manicure, as we do every 3 to 6 months, just for fun. My son finished up a few minutes before me and asked if he could go play in the kid’s play area, located 10 feet outside the salon window. I was hesitant at first to allow him to go play but one of the ladies working in the salon didn’t have a customer at the time and said she would watch him for me as I finished up. Problem solved, or so I thought.

    Well, no less than 5 minutes later, my son comes running into the salon followed by a middle-aged man with a son about the same age as my son, screaming, “Who’s the parent of this boy? He’s unattended in the play area and could be kidnapped.” I say “Hold on a minute. I’m his dad and you’re overreacting.” He says back to me, “You’re a horrible parent, what you did is as bad as or worse than leaving him alone in a locked car.” I said, “First of all, he was being watched by this nice woman here, so he wasn’t unattended. And secondly, he was in no danger compared to be locked in a hot car alone. You need to mind your own business. I’ll raise my son the way I see fit and you can raise your son likewise.” He say, in response, that, “She can’t watch your child – she isn’t a licensed daycare provider.” and that, “I should call the fucking cops on you for leaving your child unattended.” I replied, “For being so concerned about children, you sure have no problem dropping f-bombs in front of them, do you?” He finally went away, mumbling more nonsense about how he should call the police . . .

    1. John Barleycorn

      Wheeze, if you were to tell me the real reason you like to get a pedicure is because you enjoy this particular nail salon’s technique of taking an orbital sander to the warts on your feet and as a bonus following that you get your toenails trimmed and buffed before you get them painted to match your vests your snake boots would all the sudden make perfect sense.

      Don’t say a word! Just tell me you did not and would not under any circumstances wear the Spence Jacket into a nail salon to get a pedicure unless that nail salon had top less manicurists, or whatever the fuck you call a pedicurist, top shelf whiskey, and insisted you smoke the hookah pipe while they play with your toes.

      Speaking of this post. I hate to admit it but I am thinking worst-first scenarios.

      Not for your son mind you but for the pedicurist. I hear them snake skin boots don’t breath worth a damn. Nasty!

    2. Fubar

      He say, in response, that, “She can’t watch your child – she isn’t a licensed daycare provider.” and that, “I should call the fucking cops on you for leaving your child unattended.”

      A recently unpublished compendium of social etiquette, Polite Replies for Every Occasion, offers this initial riposte:

      Sir, I’m sure your intention’s the best,
      So I shall not impede your brave quest.
      If you think he’s in danger
      From some lurking stranger,
      Then, Sir, by all means, be my guest.

      1. Frank

        This strikes me as a really bad idea. Daring someone to call the cops inevitably results in the cops being called. Given the circumstances, it would be quite likely the father would be arrested and the kid sent to the tender mercies of an abusive pedophile who is a “licensed daycare provider” if recent news reports are taken into account.

        1. SHG Post author

          Lets not go down the nonsensical rabbit hole of “abusive pedophile” daycare providers, please. Not even in jest.

  2. AH

    I see it as almost a form of collective PTSD. I hope you will forgive the personal anecdote, but in my mind it is similar to what happened to my husband. His brother (with whom he is very close) was involved in a golf cart accident that rendered him a paraplegic. After the accident it became clear that my husband could no longer rationally evaluate and prioritize risk. Something that he never imagined could happen happened to someone he loved, and he believed that if it that happened, that truly anything could happen at any time and he developed anxieties accordingly. (I think we all appreciate on a superficial level that “anything can happen” but that is different than truly believing and planning for terrible things to happen at any moment).

    In think that is what is happening on a global level. In the past, before we were inundated with global news, we would be aware of terrible things that happened in our community, but not much beyond. It allowed us to appreciate the proportionality of the likely occurence of perceived risks. With all of the information we have at our fingertips, our ability to assess that proportionality has become incredibly skewed, just like it did with my husband. I think that, combined with society’s inability to accept any risk of any negative event, has created this zebra problem.

    1. SHG Post author

      The rule of news has always been, “if it bleeds, it leads.” News is always about outliers. It’s unclear to me what changed, and maybe nothing changed except the trend, but we have clearly gone from a society with a level sense of risk proportionality to one that imagines the worst first.

  3. william doriss

    Bravo! This is a torrable, torrable, torrable development in the modern 21st C. world we inhabit. Who woulda thunk or imagined that this type of thinking would emerge in our highly educated, enlightened world of today? This is a serious problem. Perhaps driving on the interstate highways at the posted speed limits should be outlawed, because of the possibility of “outlier events”, aka “accidents”. This is a slippery slope indeed. Not to mention hanging your laundry out to dry in certain hoity-toity neighborhoods, or collecting rainwater in certain [Western] communities.
    Thank you for the appropriate and careful use of punctuation, namely, the lowly “comma”. Ha. Commas
    are the most important part of punctuation.

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