The 3 stages of accepting there's a problem and you are part of it

Diversity: a hard and very delicate subject in IT these days. Every now and then, we see horrible things exposed on Twitter - harassments, hate, humiliation towards women or other minorities. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, since not everybody has the guts to expose such threats. Yet, many people seem to not believe this is actually happening. Or, at least, consider that this is not their problem.

That's my impression after seeing some of the feedback received by a dear friend, in response to a very truthful talk where she exposed such problems and how toxic this environment can be, not only for women, but for minorities in general. Anywhere from "this only happens in the US" to "a little bit too fake", some people clearly don't want to see what is happening out there, in the real world. And I want to understand why.

This is not a post about diversity and gender issues, and I'm not here to try to prove the problems are there; this is a post about why some people still struggle to believe when there's something wrong that needs immediate attention.

While reading the excellent book You are not so smart, from David McRaney, I came across these 3 topics that fit just perfectly to explain why people (every single one of us) behave like this, why there's so much denial when something bad is exposed, and how we can act to fight this behavior in ourselves and in others.

First Stage: This is not happening

The Normalcy Bias

"Much of your behavior is an attempt to lower anxiety. You know you aren't in any danger when everything is safe and expected. Normalcy Bias is a self-shooting through believing everything is just fine(...) It's a state of mind out of which you are attempting to make everything OK just by believing it still is." - p. 60

Normalcy bias happens when we fail to take action during a crisis, pretending everything is just normal as it was before. Even in a state of emergency, the reality is a bit different from what we are used to seeing in the movies - instead of freaking out or impersonating your favorite action character to save people's lives, you'll probably just be normal and engage into normal activities to avoid stress and anxiety. Exactly like what happened on 9/11 - survivors say they remember calling loved ones, gathering belongings, putting their coats on, even shutting down computers before leaving in a normal pace to take the stairs. People weren't running and screaming.

But normalcy bias does not happen only with big catastrophes and disasters. We can see it happening all the time, with more abstract subjects as well - global climate change, health epidemics, market crashes. Things that are right in front of our face and yet we struggle to believe, since we would have to accept the "abnormality" of those situations in our daily lives.

Are women being harassed on Internet? Yes. Are there people from our industry suffering from depression and struggling with mental illness? Yes. Just look around, you will find out.

Overcoming it

We must bring awareness to people, in a way to bring the subjects into focus and make them become the "new normal". At some point, they won't be able to ignore the facts.

Second Stage: They deserved it

The Just-World Fallacy

"When you hear about a situation you hope never happens to you, you tend to blame the victim, not because you are a terrible person, but because you want to believe you are smart enough to avoid the same fate." - p. 107

When we hear about something terrible that happened with someone, it's very common that we try to find reasons to explain why that happened, as a way to prove to yourself that this won't happen to you (or someone very close) - that makes us feel safe. This tendency is called the just-world fallacy in psychology, and it is kind of "built-in" in our minds. It's caused by our need to feel in control - we want to believe that nothing bad will happen to us as long as we have good behavior.

But the truth is that the world is not really fair. Bad things happen to good people, and many times bad people can get away with their actions without suffering any consequences. It might be hard for you to accept this, but the sooner you do, you'll be able to see things like they really are.

Overcoming it

We must face that the world is not always fair, and the blame for evil acts rests on the perpetrator and never the victim. Repeat with me: never the victim.

Third Stage: This is not my problem

The Bystander Effect

"In a crowd, your inclination to rush to someone's aid fades, as if diluted by the potential of the group. Everyone thinks someone is going to eventually do something, but with everyone waiting together, no one does." - p. 73

"I could help, but I'm pretty sure someone else will do it" - you believe that you are the only one thinking this, but actually everybody thinks the same, when around a group of people. So nobody acts. The bystander effect also happens the other way around - when in a group, people will be less likely to react quickly when exposed to some imminent danger. Everybody just freezes while looking at each other, like waiting on a lead.

Studies say the fear of embarrassment plays a big role in a group. This is why is so hard to react when we are in a group and we see or hear something that sounds offensive to us - the bigger the group, the harder it is. Probably it sounded offensive to everyone else, but nobody reacted for fearing an embarrassing situation.

Overcoming it

If we feel that someone needs help or some action must be taken, like speaking up for something that we believe, we should not wait for someone else to do it for us. Chances are nobody will.

A Final Note

We are all affected by those biases frequently, but we usually don't notice. The first thing to do in order to overcome them is to actually identify when it's happening with ourselves - and this requires a lot of observation. Not an easy job. But a very brave one, in my opinion. Let's try it.


php developer && open source enthusiast. sometimes writer, sometimes speaker. loves cats, elephpants and unicorns.

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