A child drowns every minute and no one cares.
The chance of an American dying in a plane crash is 1 in 11 million. Compare that to 1 in 5,000 for an American dying in a motor vehicle accident, or a 1 in 50,000 chance of drowning (my rough estimate) Americans** are safer on an airplane than you are in a car or near water – but we obsess and agonize over the unlikely event a plane will crash and pay little attention to water safety, despite the fact that airline safety is highly regulated with largely consistent standards globally and highly trained pilots, flight crew, maintenance technicians, design engineers, and systems ensuring that planes and passengers arrive safely.
Why do humans focus on the statistically few catastrophic events and ignore the daily hazards? How do we make people care about water safety?
We need to understand how the brain works, how people experience empathy, and understand what people can take in and what is overwhelming. We all know that plane crashes kill relatively few people, far fewer than auto accidents, but it’s the number-all-at-once and the feeling you have no control over the situation that I think grabs people – that scares them. With planes you are giving your personal control over to a metal tube hurtling through the sky under the control of someone you don’t know. People believe they have control over cars. When most people think about water, they probably think they can ‘control’ water by simply turning a faucet on and off, choosing to jump in a pool or not, digging trenches or canals or otherwise containing and directly water. This is occasionally challenged with cataclysmic hurricanes, tsunamis or flooding that clearly demonstrates that we have no control over the full natural force of water – events which are very frightening is it rips away the illusion of control and make people less likely to believe a change in their behavior can make a difference in the outcome. Given this illusion of control vs. the lack of control, we tread a fine line with water. Making people feel they have enough control to change their destiny, but not so much control that they don’t have a healthy respect for water.
It’s a constant balance between making it personal, making it global, making it manageable, making it scary enough that people realize they need to learn water safety. It’s as if we are walking a tightrope over Victoria Falls balancing our children in our arms during a typhoon in terms of the complexity of water safety that we need to communicate, and the urgency, but it can be done.
We must teach people what they can do to control their fate under normal circumstances so that they are willing to learn about water safety.
Let’s look at a couple of proven methods for engaging people.
Nicholas Kristof has written beautifully about the psychology behind highlighting one person’s story, the ability of the public to feel empathy for a stranger with a face and a story rather than the ‘thousands of starving children’ argument.
I’ve excerpted some key quotes, but I highly recommend reading the entire article.
“The recent research in social psychology offers a couple of central lessons. The first is a bit surprising: We intervene not because of stories of desperate circumstances but when we can be cheered up with positive stories of success and transformation.”
“If one lesson is the need to emphasize hopefulness, the second is that storytelling needs to focus on an individual, not a group.”
“As we all vaguely know, one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. As Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
“….all the psychological research shows that we are moved not by statistics but by fresh, wet tears, with a bit of hope glistening below.”
What I draw from this is the need to leverage the experiences of the families and loved ones who have lost someone dear to them and are willing to say ‘it happened to me’. We also need to immediately follow up each story with prescriptions of ‘this is what you can do’ to show that while drowning is an epidemic, simple changes in behavior can make a difference. Even more important, and we aren’t doing this, we need to search out the success stories, the people who took the right action and avoided death or injury, and get them talking publicly about what they did – what action changed the outcome.
The communication has to be simple, clear, and directive – explain the danger, the potential outcome, and what you can do to avoid that outcome.
Or as recent research in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology shows, when you want to communicate danger, you need to explain the outcome.
“Saying to your child, ‘Don’t do that’ or ‘Stop’ or ‘Be careful’ doesn’t really work,” Plumert says. “I mean, it’s okay to say that, but the next step is to say why not. You shouldn’t assume that your child knows why not, even if it seems obvious to you.”
“Mothers used one tactic especially effectively: They pointed out the dangerous elements in the situation, and explained how those current dangers could cause the child to get hurt. The researchers were initially surprised that mothers focused more on the present features rather than pointing out potential outcomes, but think it’s because parents use the present – the danger – to help the child understand the potential outcome – getting injured.”
We have the research that shows us how to communicate – we need to listen.
**The American death toll from drowning is 3,782 per year, or the tenth leading cause of unintentional injury death. Other high-income countries have similar statistics. This contrasts with the official WHO death toll of 388,000, which places drowning as the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury related deaths. Please note that this is still considered a significant understatement of the global drowning death toll, which is estimated to be 3-9 times the official 388,000 toll. Given these numbers, globally the chance of drowning is far more likely than the U.S. numbers would suggest.
No disrespect is intended, and sincere condolences extended, for the grieving families and recent victims of MH370. No matter how rare on occurrence the cause of death, the loss of life and the grief of the survivors should always be recognized and honored.