An Accident Strikes, and the World Becomes Smaller

There’s a wonderfully insightful piece in the New York Times today by science writer Gina Kolata, who describes a cycling accident in which she ran into another rider, fell off her bike, and broke her collar bone. The injury was not crippling – she managed to ride another 90 miles that same day – but the psychological ramifications were long-lasting, as the accident made her realize how vulnerable she really was when riding a bicycle. All at once, an activity that had long given her joy became a source of fear. An important part of her life was shut off.

As I’ve written before, the two main tools that we possess to control fear are information and a sense of control. In Kolata’s case, she realized that the sense of control that she had once felt while riding her bike was illusory. Stripped of her sense of control, she was helpless against her fear. She just couldn’t get back on the bike, at least for a while.

“Control makes a big difference in whether we take risks,” [Carnegie Mellon] professor of economics] Dr. Loewenstein said. “With biking, you feel in control until you have an accident. Then all of a sudden you realize you are not in control. That can have a dramatic effect — you can shift abruptly from excessive daring to exaggerated caution.”

I’m currently working on a story for Psychology Today about why some people are mentally tougher in the face of crisis than others, and what the rest of us can learn from them. A major lesson I’ve taken away from my research is that the way we choose to think about our struggles is a critical factor in resilience. Those who bounce back easiest are those who can think of a negative outcome as a challenge rather than a defeat, and recognize in each setback an opportunity to grow and test themselves.

In Kolata’s case, she was not able to take such an upbeat stance. She had come to feel that when she was on a bicycle, something bad could happen to her at any time, and there was nothing she could do about it. Yet at the same time she continued to run, even though that activity poses an even greater risk of injury. Why? Because the nature of running injuries allow a person to more easily maintain the illusion of control, even after they occur.

With running, even though I realize that I and others who got injured could not have prevented our injuries, somehow I blamed myself. It was “overuse,” even though overuse is apparent only in retrospect, as you cast about for a reason why you got injured.

But running is considered to carry less risk than cycling. And, notes Barry Glassner, president of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., and an expert on fear and risk perception, “anything that is widely perceived as lower risk, we blame ourselves when something goes wrong.”

We often hear that “guilt is a useless emotion,” but in the context of fear, it can be very useful indeed. We only blame ourselves for things that we are actively responsible for, and we are only responsible for things that we can control. If we feel guilty about a turn of events, then we can’t feel very afraid of it recurring: the locus of control is within ourselves. Guilt, then, can become a kind of psychological defense mechanism, allowing, as Kolata writes, “some people [to] continue a risky sport — by deciding that a serious accident was not really random.”

“You see it with rock climbers,” says [competitive cyclist] Rob Coppolillo. “There will be a fatality or someone will really get hurt. There are those psychological backflips you can make yourself do. ‘It won’t happen to me.’ ”

And if you have an accident and you can blame yourself for it, then you can also convince yourself that it won’t happen again.

That’s how Dr. Loewenstein reasoned when he crashed his bike last winter after riding over a patch of ice. He ended up with a shoulder injury. He decided the whole thing was his fault and could have been avoided.

“I did not experience a loss of control,” he said. “I just thought I had been stupid. Whereas if a car had hit me, it would have been different.”

Psychologists call the act of changing our perspective “reframing.” It’s a great tool, but not always easy to use. We can’t simply tell ourselves, “Right, I need to blame myself for that seemingly random accident.” Emotions aren’t as tractable as that. But with practice, we can nudge our feelings in the right direction.

As an amateur pilot, I share the habit of many aviators of poring obsessively over accident data, trying to figure out why other pilots died. It may seem macabre, but in trying to understand what went wrong, we convince ourselves that we can avoid making the same mistakes.

Though her story is ambiguous as to the outcome of her saga, I hope that Kolata does manage to get back on her bike. It would be a pity if the woman who once described herself as thinking of “a 100-mile bike ride as a reward” had such an important part of her life stripped away by fear.

There’s a lesson in this for all of us. Conquering fear is one of the most difficult emotional challenges in life, but it’s also the most important. It’s fear that hedges us in. The further we can push back against it, the broader and richer our time on this planet will be.

3 thoughts on “An Accident Strikes, and the World Becomes Smaller”

  1. This is probably too big a question for a blog comment, but here goes: Why do people seem to have such difficulty thinking about situations which are neither completely random nor completely predictable, which is to say almost all of them?

    For any outcome of interest — whether we’re talking about getting cancer, being in a car crash, or getting a promotion — there’s a significant element of randomness, and there are things we can do to influence or at least recognize the shape of that randomness. So why are we so bent on maintaining the illusion of either being completely in control, or being completely free of responsibility?

  2. You’re right, that’s a huge question, Eric, but worth bringing up, even if there’s only enough room here to get the thought process started. I think there are many areas of human existence in which we’re predisposed to take an either/or point of view, when the truth lies somewhere in between, or perhaps on a different axis altogether. The more I think about the human mind and brain the more convinced I become that we’re really not wired very well for self-understanding. When it comes to randomness and control, the issue becomes even muddier when we look at our own internal failures of self-control. I would add the that legal system, due to the legacy of hundreds of years of tradition, is based on a conception of human behavior (and in particular, responsibility) that is very much at odds with neuroscience. It will be interesting to see whether this changes in coming decades.

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