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Sandy Hook and Useless Common Sense on Guns

As a parent and a human being, I am horrified and terrified by the events of last week in Newtown, Connecticut.  I have hugged my kids, I have sat and cried upon reading notes sent by six year old best friends. But as a psychologist, I can’t help but read the discussion around this event through this lens: I know that some people feel that if more people had guns, everyone would be safer since we would regulate our behavior more carefully. We would have less crime if we knew that anyone around us could shoot us if we got out of line. This is not just a theory of the Constitution, or a theory of guns, but a theory of human behavior. And as such, it is batshit insane. So I ignored it.

But then the governor of my state endorsed this, or at least opened the door for a “discussion” which is what people in public office want to do when they want to endorse something without explaining it.

As those who read this blog regularly, I find mockery without seeking understanding distasteful, especially when I feel myself engaging in it. So here is my effort to understand this, through my understanding of the psychology of cognitive biases. I think, in all this, there is also a lesson about the value of psychology in the face of what some might call common sense.

If I were to pick a psychological topic for people in this debate to understand more fully, it would be the concept that in calculating the likelihood of events (future or past), or how things are caused, we take our thoughts, our memories, and our imagination as data. We might recognize that our views are subjective and we may try to account for our own values and experience, but what we do not account for is that we are not merely subjective, but we are all biased. We are biased because our imaginations are biased. It is simply easier to think of some things that others.

Depending on how it is applied, this tendency is sometimes called the availability heuristic, sometimes the simulation heuristic. When judging what causes something else (was it the guns or the deranged mind?), we engage in counterfactual thinking (what could have stopped this?) and we judge things that are more mutable (things we can imagine changing) as more important to causing an event than those we can’t imagine changing.

This feels like logic, but it is not. A thought experiment is not an experiment.

Just because I can imagine looking more carefully doesn’t make it likely that I would have avoided getting hit by that car when I was on my bike. Just because it is easier to imagine avoiding the accident than breaking my neck, doesn’t make me any less lucky that I only had a few stitches on my hand.

Just because we can imagine that mentally ill person being violent, doesn’t change the facts:

Most people with SMI [severe mental illness] are not violent, and most violent acts are not committed by people with SMI. In fact, people with SMI are actually at higher risk of being victims of violence than perpetrators. Teplin et al found that those with SMI are 11 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population.ii

Just because we can imagine that if only Dawn Hochsprung had a weapon when she heard that crash, the shooter would have been stopped, doesn’t make it more likely.

Just because someone can imagine that a crowd ganging together and rushing an attacker (yes, someone imagined such a thing in print) might be an effective way of limiting fatalities, doesn’t make it so. Bringing up Flight 93 only proves the point that one could only think this because of its success in another totally unrelated and different scenario.

In a case as horrible as this, how could we not nudge our memories and our imaginations to make it not happen? Isn’t it merely human to imagine this evil man-child, this villain, this terrorist, blown away at the door by a vigilant police officer or quick thinking super hero-teacher? Isn’t it equally human to imagine this monster, angry and frustrated, only being able to access a small handgun and a small clip, then walking into this school and *only* killing half the class?

These are human responses, and when I confront tragedies large and small I do the same thing. But when we are designing laws and policies, I think we can do better than what some columnist thought about on a cab ride home. We have to force ourselves outside of our own imagination, both by expanding our imagination, but also by consulting the science of how people actually behave and evidence of how people have actually behaved in the past.

The data on the complicated but not random phenomena of suicide offers a sad but necessary reminder of the limits of our imaginations and the need to ignore our common sense. Common sense might make it easier for us to imagine that suicide is only the result of extreme chronic depression and hopelessness. Someone who hits “rock bottom” and can’t take it any more. But suicide in bipolar disorder also can happen in the manic phase, and it is often better considered an acute event, rather than an inevitable chronic one. What might seem like the most personal, independent and isolated decision one could ever make can actually be contagious, and affected by media reports. While a suicide attempt is often an indicator of psychiatric disorder, it is not a death sentence.  Finally, this act, of taking one’s own life, for most of us almost the very definition of “the unthinkable,” is actually far more common than we’d like to acknowledge. More common than homicide. More common than deaths from war. Worldwide, more common than accidents, homicide and war put together.

I think trying to expand our imaginations (or at least remind ourselves of their limitations) can also be a useful complement to statistics. Feel comforted by the idea of having a gun when your house is burglarized? I know I have imagined this. My house growing up was burglarized three times, once when my family was in it. My first apartment out of college was burglarized.

Now try imagining that gun in many other moments of its life. Listen to Nas’ “I Gave You Power.” Imagine it in the hands of every other person who lives in your house. How about in ten years? (“Having school-age children in the household did not significantly affect gun ownership rates, either positively or negatively“)  Imagine that you leave the door unlocked and someone comes into your house at night and sits on your couch and fumbles around for remote. I know someone who this happened to, a new neighbor got very drunk and walked into the wrong house at 2am. Do you use your gun?

What really strikes me about the proposal to arm teachers (or arm everybody) is in our frenzy to get schools safe, we are ignoring what schools do when they are not being attacked by assault rifles. We are so caught up in this moment, in our grief, in our human desire to reverse this, that people can only imagine a teacher’s gun erasing this moment, and not all the other moments it would create. To many non-teachers, the moments where a teacher must think “This makes me scared and angry, but I really shouldn’t shoot this person” vastly outnumber the moments where drawing and/or shooting a gun might be appropriate.

Sandy Young, one of my favorite commenters over at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place at the Atlantic  relates his experience this way (but read his whole comment):

Three times in my career as a teacher, I have had to confront and disarm disturbed and angry students. Once I had to disarm an intruder. None of these cases involved firearms; they involved knives, a machete, numchucks (sp?) and a crowbar. Each time I had to face them down and tell them that they had but two choices; they could surrender the weapon to me, or they would have to use it on me.

Each time, I watched and waited as they pondered their decision. I was surprisingly calm. I felt in that moment that I had simply cast my fate to the wind. It was only later that the shakes set in.

I am a college professor, not a high school teacher, nor an elementary school teacher. But through my kids, my visits, and my loved ones, I know that discipline in a classroom often consists of personal inhibition of action, rather than active confrontation. Teachers try to create in the classroom a model of the civil society that Alan Jacobs sees us relinquishing in efforts to ensure personal safety through assured destruction. Classrooms are exactly the last place that we should bring guns in. Safety in the classroom has to be assumed and thoughtless, not constantly reminded through the presence of weapons.

To come around, once more, to our deficit of imagination, and to suicide: According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, one in five American high school students reported seriously considering suicide in the past year and 8% of high school students make an attempt. That is two kids in a class of twenty five. If we get more guns into more people’s hands, whoever wields a gun is likely to use it in the way that guns are currently most commonly used: to kill themselves, not save children from homicidal maniacs. Just because it is harder to imagine this, doesn’t make it any less true.

In this debate that we have, over gun control, over access to mental health, over our collective reaction to rare events, I hope that we can at least agree to give priority to evidence about how people actually behave, instead of how they behave in our minds.