Monday, May 9, 2011

Her Failure to Use Critical Judgment - The Enormous Consequences

On a recent trip into downtown New Braunfels, Texas, I noticed that there was a big motorcycle rally going on at the fairgrounds. I've never seen so many bikes all in one place. Not that motorcycles are rare around here. The town has a big, fancy Harley-Davidson dealership, and the riders have lots of favorite Texas Hill Country back roads that lead to interesting destinations.

Photo by Kathleen Scott
The site of all these bikes brought back a memory of an incident that happened about 30 years ago. Back then I was a lieutenant colonel, in charge of personnel management at the Armed Forces Staff College in Norfolk, Virginia. Rick, an Air Force major who was a student there, lived in York County not far from my house. The drive to the college took more than 45 minutes one-way, so we agreed to carpool.

One evening he called to tell me not to pick him up the next morning, because he had to deal with a family emergency and wouldn't be coming in.

The next time I saw him he explained what happened. He and his wife owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and while he was in class his wife, Jill, decided to go for a ride. They had a seven-month-old baby girl, and his wife had secured the car-seat to the back of the bike. Unfortunately, the strapping came loose and on a turn the car-seat went flying. The baby wasn't killed, but she suffered a serious head injury, and she was in a coma.

Rick was in bad shape. He told me Jill was torn up with guilt. I had met Jill once. She was a beautiful young woman with long, flowing brown hair. The word "vivacious" comes to mind - spontaneous, creative, and fun-loving. I knew this was a big part of what Rick loved about her. But in retrospect I now understand that these endearing qualities may have been her undoing. It would take a monumental lack of critical judgment to tie a baby to the back of a Harley so she could have some fun. Why didn't she foresee the possibility that this could happen? Why didn't she conclude that it wasn't worth risking the life of her baby daughter?

Rick couldn't get past these questions. He told me that Jill was like that. On a lark she would sometimes do wild and crazy things, and Rick would confront her with her irresponsibility. But nothing bad had ever happened, so she always brushed it off.

Until now.

At the time, I was as perplexed about her actions as he was. She wasn't simple-minded. She was a sophisticated, mature 32-year-old woman. It didn't make sense.

But that was 30 years ago, before I had begun my decades-long learning journey focused on how the brain works. Revisiting the memory from my current perspective, I understand the incident differently. I now know why a perfectly normal adult might not foresee the consequences of their actions, fail to exercise critical judgment, and take enormous risks for little or no gain.

It's because with many people, that's how their brains work. They may have other wonderful qualities, but they often act irrationally and sometimes suffer unfortunate consequences.

But why do their brains work that way? The answer is that they learned to think that way. I've explained in other posts that irrational decisions are a common characteristic of adolescent behavior. The pre-frontal cortex - the part of the brain that understands how things relate to each other, including cause and effect - is the so-called "executive" part of the brain that handles logic and planning. This is the last area of the brain to develop, and during adolescence it is "under construction." Since critical judgment is so difficult for a teenager, they will often default to an emotional response. They will do irrational things regardless of the consequences because they are angry, worried, insecure, depressed, wanting excitement, etc. In short, they don't know why they do what they do.

With experience, coaching, parenting, instruction and adult guidance, teens can learn to think critically. These learned patterns become the foundation for their intellect in adult life. But the window for this development closes when young people are in their early 20s. And if they failed to ingrain these logical analysis and decision-making skills during adolescence, they won't have a substantial foundation for critical thinking as adults.

And that's what I think happened to Jill. She wasn't a bad person. She wasn't stupid. Her problem was that she made it all the way through her teen journey without being helped to think things through logically. Why? There could have been lots of reasons. But the learning window opens at puberty and the learning window closes a dozen years later, after which the foundation for critical thinking is set for life. A person can continue to learn thinking skills, but if the foundation is limited, the learning can be difficult, like pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.

A few months later the class graduated, the couple moved on to another assignment, and I never knew what happened to them. I can only imagine....

The folks at the rally are proud of their bright, shiny road machines, and I can appreciate how much fun they must be. But at this time of my life I've simplified my possibilities. I'll never learn to ride a Harley, I don't care how much fun it is. And I'll never learn to snow-ski, sky-dive, wind-surf and a few other things other people my age have encouraged me to try.

I SCUBA dive in the ocean, and I tell the truth. That's plenty enough risk-taking for me.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .


Steve said...

For those of us that rely heavily on critical thinking to make decisions - your story is a reminder that many nice and seemingly intelligent people simply do not process their world the way that we do. As you point out, they may make significant decisions based on emotional impulses. They get a charge out of taking a spontaneous risk. Fun people to be around at a party - but I wouldn't let them babysit my child.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Wow, Denny, I can't believe she did that. I hate to say this, but I would have considered divorcing her and taking custody of the kid. That is pretty crazy.



shareandi said...

It would take a monumental lack of critical judgment to tie a baby to the back of a Harley so she could have some fun.

Pretty short story but also mind-expanding. Thanks to people like Denny I just began 30s and I'm still doing a good job applying critical thinking to every action I might take, especially when it involves serious choices. Not how much fun, but how much practical. Because, of course, fun cannot be taken away from fun, but if it is practical, better.

As always, thanks, Denny!