Monday, January 25, 2010

Another Plane Crash, Another Reason Not to Notice

A 737 with 90 people on board crashed shortly after takeoff today.  So far 21 bodies have been recovered.  The rest are all presumed dead.

If you hadn't heard about this crash before reading this post, you probably find the description above really unsatisfying.  Where was the plane taking off from?  Where was it going?  Who were the people on board?  Why did it crash?

All this brings me to a bigger question.  Why do you care?  Why does it matter where this happened or who was on board?  No matter where or how, 90 people died on that airplane.  Shouldn't we be equally interested in the story without knowing anything about them?

The quick answer to that, however, is no, and the reason is actually very simple.  When we ask where the plane was, who was on board or why it crashed, we are actually asking something much more personal -- could it have been me or someone close to me? 

That may sound callous and self-centered, but it actually makes a lot of sense.  At our origins, we are animals and we are wired for survival.  When something happens to someone else in the "pack," we automatically assess whether the danger that affected them is also a danger to us.  If it is, we want more information -- we'll follow the news more closely -- because we want to learn all we can to avoid it happening to us.  We'll also be more upset, because it will remind us that the danger is real to us.

How we assess whether this could have happened to us, however, is somewhat more problematic.  The fact that we do or do not fly on 737's, for example, is unlikely to make much of a difference, because we generally tend to assume that if there was something wrong with the plane it was limited to that plane.  We might be more inclined to make a judgment based on the route the plane is flying, but even that isn't terribly predictive.  For example, a major plane crash in, say, St. Louis is likely to scare Americans even if they've never flown to or from St. Louis.

What we tend to rely on, unfortunately, is the characteristics of the people on board.  This is why news organizations routinely report whether there were people from the country the media outlet is based in on board.  We judge whether it could have happened to us by whether there were people like us whom it happened to.  And we have a fairly narrow view of who is "like us."

Which brings us around to the particulars of this crash.  The 737 was an Ethiopian Airlines flight from Beirut to Addis Ababa.  It took off in bad weather and crashed into the Mediterranean very shortly thereafter.  For the vast majority of Americans, that description is actually a relief -- the majority of Americans don't, unfortunately, think of Ethiopians as "like us" and we don't fly from Beirut to Addis Ababa.  While that reasoning makes sense, it is disturbing to realize how easily we characterize people -- by nationality, by race, by economic status, by location -- and easily that leads to changes in how much we pay attention.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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