Sunday, June 20, 2010

We imitate our friends, their friends


I read about a lift service engineer in Dubai who committed suicide by tying himself to the undercarriage of his lift. When someone then called the lift to an upper floor the lift ascended and he was immediately killed by hanging. The unfortunate lift attendant left a suicide note stating that he had not been paid for six months and could not support his family.

His method of suicide was macabre, since he used the instrument which should have been his livelihood as the means of his death. His body went undiscovered for four days, during which time the lift went up and down with the corpse getting more mangled every time it hit the basement. It was a sad end to an unknown person’s life and it did not seem entirely rational, since logically his death will leave his family in an even worse position. I also read in a Kampala newspaper some time back, about an Indian gentleman who went to the Casino, presumably in a last ditch attempt to have a win which would pay his debts. When he failed he walked to the top of the building and threw himself off. Workers in China started committing suicide by jumping off buildings as a protest against low wages. The company rapidly responded with a large increase in salaries, but not before 12 workers had followed suit.

Suicide is contagious, not through touch, but the idea is contagious. In our perceptions and beliefs we are more influenced by those around us than we realise. Studies have shown that we are influenced by our friends (which is no surprise), but also by our friends’ friends and even by our friends’ friends’ friends. If one person jumps off a building, then another person may begin to think that this is a solution to their problems and follow suit. It is as if they have been given permission by the first suicide. This phenomenon explains the rash of suicide bombers we have today — they have witnessed many others doing it. They have also been brain-washed that this is a noble act and that it is the means of escape from this life of sorrow to nirvana.

It is a trait of human nature that we copy things very easily — when one person throws acid, other people think about doing it, if a man boasts of infecting women with HIV, others are influenced by his behaviour. If one boda boda guy rides with recklessness and bravado, this becomes the style for everyone. One need not wonder why child sacrifice has become so common, it is because a few people started and others joined in, calling it a traditional cultural rite. We are not independent from one another and are susceptible to being changed by what is going on around us. I used to think that patients would believe me as the doctor when I gave them the scientific explanation for a disease such as malaria or HIV, but over the years I have found their understanding of scientific theories is tremendously influenced by other factors. These range from gossip, to what they see around them, to traditional cultural beliefs, indeed in all walks of life in Uganda, evidence plays only a secondary role.

So you might believe that you are the master of your own decisions (and you are responsible for them), but you are also being influenced by the community you are a part of. Therefore, if I wish to change your behaviour, should I reason with you or should I first influence those around you and they will do the work for me? Have you ever wondered why corruption is spreading so rampantly today? Just look around — people are adopting the values they see in their friends and their friends’ friends. So the message is that if you really want to change an individual, you also need to work on the wider community. It is not that an individual cannot change, but he will be swimming against the current. This is why our leadership, in terms of the Church, cultural leaders and political leaders are so important, because they can set the standards for the community — but they often fail to understand the role they play.

Published on: Saturday, 19th June, 2010

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