Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Don't worry, everything is terrible

(CW: suicide, mental illness, arbitrary dichotomies)

Say that you want to advise a friend against a course of action you believe to be against their best interests — punching their boss, running away from home, not running away from home, staying in a loveless relationship, etc. Usually this will be a case where from their viewpoint, the ‘unwise’ decision seems like the better one (or at least comparably good), whereas from your viewpoint the ‘unwise’ decision is obviously worse.

(Your judgement may not necessarily be right, either, but let’s simplify things by making that assumption and removing the ethical questions related to bad or paternalistically ignorant advice. This tends to restrict us to cases where you both have similar knowledge of the situation, and where being removed from the situation is an advantage. Of course, impartiality doesn’t always mean better decisions! Hence ‘assumption’.)

There are two broad classes of counsel you can provide: positive or negative.

The positive class involves suggesting to your friend that they’re undervaluing the ‘wise’ option(s) — their boss isn’t really that insufferable after all, they’ll feel so much better after they let this relationship go, they’ll win that prize if they keep training hard enough.

Conversely, the negative class of counsel involves suggesting to your friend that they’re overvaluing their ‘unwise’ option(s) — if they punch their boss they’ll go to jail, if they stay with their partner they’ll just continue to fight, if they give up training they’ll have let down everyone who was supporting them.

It’s pretty clear that, from a well-being perspective, telling your friend that “it’s better than you think” is strictly kinder than “it’s worse than you think”. In a case where both options feel unappealing to them (and why else would they be struggling with the decision?) then the former alleviates stress where the latter adds to it. Nobody emotionally benefits from having it affirmed to them that all their options are terrible.

Credit: goldilockphotography / flickr

This is perhaps (especially?) pertinent in the case of endogenous (internally caused) thought patterns: think binge-eating compulsions or suicidal ideation. There is a reason that you’re not supposed to say “think of how sad everyone would be if you died”, and it’s probably related to the fact that it doesn’t make things better. Suicide attempt survivors fished out of rivers never tell the cameras, years later, about how, as their life flashed before their eyes, they realised how little they had to die for.

This suggests a rule of thumb: if you want to dissuade someone you care about from a course of action, frame it positively. Negative framing might achieve the desired results, but it won’t help with the underlying distress.