I apologize in advance for the length of this post. By now I assume most of you have heard about this story in the news. It is clearly tragic that an apparently harmless prank may have contributed to the death of a hospital nurse in England who was taking care of the princess. The news has resulted in a flood of angry comments and hatred directed at the two DJ’s who were involved in this prank. We could argue all day about the wisdom of playing childish pranks in general but I doubt there is anyone here who hasn’t played a prank on someone at sometime. Some of them may have even gone wrong resulting in an injury or hurt feelings that were more easily foreseen than the events in this story. In any case this tragic event brings up a few elements of human behavior that I have always found troubling.
1) We always need someone to blame - No matter what the tragedy is people always seem to find it easier to accept if they have someone to direct their anger at whether it be an individual, a government, a corporation, or even an inanimate object. It seems to be a very basic character flaw in all of us to varying degrees. It’s ubiquity makes me believe that it almost certainly has some biological component, although culture probably plays a role as well.
From kicking the poor chair who’s leg you stubbed your toe on, or the cat you tripped over, to suing the fast food place for making the coffee too hot that then caused a burn when it spilled in your lap while trying to drive and drink it there seems to be no end to the variations on this theme.
2) We often judge an action by the outcome rather then its own merits or faults - Radio DJ’s play pranks no worse than the one in this story dozens of times a day. Usually the outcome is merely entertaining or at worst they result in an angry victim. In this case the result was far more tragic it seems but despite that the act that lead to the tragedy was no worse than most others and yet the vitriol and hatred directed at these DJ’s is far beyond anything delivered on a daily basis to the others who do the same thing. These two people certainly had no reason to expect this outcome but they are being judged by the outcome rather than the act.
Its not just this one occasion, we see this behavior in people all the time. A football coach can call the same play twice and one time it works and the next time it doesn’t. If you believe the announcers, he was a genius on the one occasion and in idiot on the second even though his actions were identical.
3) We often cast blame even when cause and effect are not directly linked ie. the outcome of an action could not have been reasonably predicted beforehand. - Again, these two DJ’s could not have reasonable anticipated such an extreme reaction their actions. I’m not defending what they did, but prior to the act no person in their right mind would have predicted this outcome yet people are quick to place the blame as though they should have known this was a possibility.
I had a discussion with a woman after the recent storm who was angry with her husband because he had lent car A to his brother the night before the storm and she wanted him to lend car B. Car B remained in their driveway and got crushed by a tree. Had he done what she asked Car B would have been with his brother and Car A would have been parked in the road and neither car would have been hit. She was right of course that if he had listened to her the would have two undamaged cars but her reasoning had nothing to do with the risk of the car getting hit. The logic used to choose which car would be loaned had nothing to do with the factors that lead to the other car being damaged so there is no causal relationship, but people have a very difficult time understanding that. Maybe because Item 1 is pushing them so hard to find someone, anyone to blame because its comforting to do so.