Why People Do Stupid Things

I’ll get to the core point right up front: everyone does what makes sense to them.

I first heard that in a training session that taught about communication styles. One thing that is common to all styles is the fundamental belief that what you are doing is the right thing to do at that moment. Think about that for a moment: sure, you may have intentionally done something you considered ‘wrong’ at some point, but have you ever intentionally done something that you felt was wrong to achieve your goals in that moment?

When actors who play villains are interviewed about the part and their process, usually there’s a comment like “the character doesn’t believe he/she is in the wrong”. Indeed, it has often been said that there are no fundamentally ‘bad’ people – just people who do bad things. Sometimes, their acts are not quite what we would call “evil”; sometimes, we view others’ decisions as “unwise”, or even “stupid”. We think “I would never have done that. Why on earth would they do that?”.

They have reasons. Maybe not good reasons, or reasons we (or society) would agree with, but at that moment there was a compelling motivation to take the action in question. When we get upset at the actions of other people, often we don’t know what their reasons for those actions were.

This is an important consideration. We make assumptions about what a person is thinking and feeling when they cut us off in traffic, call us a name, park their car to take up two spaces, or even attack another person. We don’t know what they’re thinking and feeling. That person who sped up and cut you off might be inconsiderate and uncaring, but they may be distraught because they just heard a loved one was admitted to the hospital. A person who beats up another person might be a hot-headed menace to society, or they might have been threatened, taunted, and ultimately attacked by their victim. There’s a lot we don’t (and often can’t) know about the motivations of other people.

At the end of the day, we all do what makes sense to us. We might look back on those decisions with regret, but at the time, we believed we were behaving appropriately. As you face the challenges of dealing with the questionable behavior of other people, remind yourself that, even if you wouldn’t have done the same things they do, you would have done what you did for the same core reason.


Destructive Coping Mechanisms: Why You Shouldn’t Rush To Stop Them

Narcotics abuse.
High-risk activities.
Reckless behavior.
Violent outbursts.
Seeking confrontation.

The list of practices we label destructive is long – and we consider them even worse when we see them publicly held up against personal suffering such as trauma or clinical depression. The instinct for most people is to take immediate action to help, and the logical way to do that is to stop the harmful behavior as soon as possible.

Please don’t.

Firstly, self-harm is not a sign of suicide risk. While those who self-harm may eventually take their own life,it is very unlikely this is their intent. Harming oneself is an alternative to suicide¹. A person who injures themselves is likely seeking to replace emotional pain (that might include thoughts of suicide without a plan) with physical pain. Cutting releases endorphins² and shock the brain, providing temporary relief from emotional pain. Even hitting oneself can provide relief; the human brain will ignore a source of pain if a much stronger one is introduced³.

Secondly, a person who is reliant on any coping mechanism cannot be expected to simply stop. To them it makes as much sense as telling a diabetic to stop taking insulin or telling anyone at all to stop eating. Self-harm is a result of being overwhelmed and desperately needing relief; it’s not choosing to indulge in an extra piece of cake or watch one more show when you know you should be sleeping.

If you truly want to help someone who relies on destructive coping mechanisms, help them find – and practice – new ways to cope. When they are able to rely on less destructive methods consistently and without help, they can then begin to wean themselves off of their old coping mechanisms

Don’t threaten them (“If you ever do this again, I’ll…”).
Don’t shame them (“You’re not going to go cut yourself, are you?”).
Don’t add to feelings of guilt (“It hurts me when you do this.”).

Help them find something better. Go get it for them, if you have to. Gently encourage, be supportive, and understand that this is an addiction they probably feel they cannot fully control. Love them, support them, respect them, and be patient.

Trying to rush or force them may do more harm than good.

¹ http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272735806000961
³ http://science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/pain4.htm