It’s Projection, You Bloody Idiot!

It’s Projection, You Bloody Idiot!

Guest post by Dr Rob Long – see more of his articles HERE

I urge you to check out his book “For the Love of Zero”

So often when people don’t understand behaviour they attribute blame to idiocy. This is a tidy technique for not needing to understand or work hard at ‘speaking into’ the real cause and motivations for behaviour. As soon as I know that someone is a ‘bloody idiot’ or a ‘stupid idiot’, they are dismissed. As soon as I know they lack ‘common sense’, whatever that is, I don’t have to take them seriously. The language of ‘bloody idiot’ and ‘common sense’ is everywhere in industry and demonstrates a profound inability to understand sensemaking, mindfulness, perception and motivation.

The concept of an idiot originally was associated with mental retardation (although this is not the root meaning of the word). Other expressions such as ‘moron’, ‘dunce’, ‘cretin’, ‘dumb’ and ‘imbicile’ connote a similar meaning. So, is the person and behavior we are labelling really without a brain? Do they really lack intelligence? Of course not, we just don’t understand their reasoning or want to understand their sensemaking. If we don’t understand a person’s motivations for their behaviour, how are we going to engage them? On what basis will the conversation start? How is our language going to bring together understanding and learning? How do we help people by alienating any possibility of connection?

A recent example of disconnecting language was demonstrated in the video that went viral on the Internet ‘Dumb ways to Die”. This video was lauded and praised as a good thing even though its fundamental premise was that suicide was due to stupidity. What a total misunderstanding and disengaging way to approach the tragedy of suicide. I wonder how parents of young people who suicide feel about a video that tells them their child took their own life because they were an idiot? If anything the video may promote suicide through copycat syndrome but it doesn’t ‘speak’ to the issue by labelling suicide as ‘dumb’. A similar campaign that promotes drinking and driving as: ‘you bloody idiot’, is just as unsuccessful.

Hallinan’s book “Why We Make Mistakes’ is a real leveller for the person who likes to think only others are ‘dumb’ and ‘idiots’. Mistake making is a fundamental characteristic of human fallibility. There are a host of reasons why we make mistakes, half the time it’s how we learn. For example, we make mistakes for a whole range of reasons associated with cognitive bias. Most of our cognitive bias is exercised unconsciously anyway, it’s out of our rational control. So when we respond unpredictably and emotionally to some stimulus, this often comes from things buried deep in our subconscious. If behavior comes from our non-rational mind, this doesn’t make us ‘stupid’.

So why does this matter to risk and safety? Why should safety people be concerned about how they talk about behavior that is unsafe? So much of safety and risk is managed through relationships, understanding and conversation. Talk that disables connections between people is ‘unsafe talk’, that is, it doesn’t assist engagement and doesn’t help learning. Your talk in safety matters.

‘Framing’ is about the way we put our words together to make sense (sensemake) to another person. We frame our language a certain way to help others get the message or be attracted to the message. Messages can be communicated in negative (loss) frames, neutral (non-judgemental) frames or positive (gain) frames. Most people are not attracted by ‘loss’ frames, the ‘pitch’ of the message is negative and non-motivational. The way we put our language together also ‘primes’ thoughts in the minds of others. Negative primes such as ‘zero’, ‘dumb’ and ‘idiot’ prime negative thoughts and are generally non-motivational. Most people are attracted to messages that indicate what they will ‘gain’ from the message. Motivational messages are far more powerful than non-motivational messages.

clip_image002My Dad used to say: ‘when you point a finger at others, three fingers point back at you’, and I think for safety people this is good advice.

So whilst labelling others as ‘stupid’ may make you feel good, it doesn’t help you connect with the very people you are trying to help. It puts your mind and theirs in a state of disengagement and is non-motivational. So perfectionist language (zero) and negative language (stupid) alienates others. Such language doesn’t motivate others to safety. Whilst we revel in the ‘stupidity’ of others we disown our own propensity to make mistakes.

The branding of others as ‘idiots’ is essentially a projection. Such projections disable safety conversations and engagement.


Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

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