33. Unfolding tragedy and putting it away nicely.


The hideous smirk of the wasp monster.

A child’s eyes grow wide as he is handed a massive ice cream with a chocolate flake in it. Only to grow wider still as the handover is fumbled and the ice cream falls to the ground. The ice cream and cornet fall apart and roll in different dusty directions. The moment is too tragic for anyone to bear.

Further down the High Street, a teenager’s Iphone 5 falls from the shallow pockets of his hipster jeans, falling on concrete and smashing the glass front. His social network is shut down and his life is now officially ruined.

Even further along the same road, a girl who has borrowed her sister’s slightly-too-big stiletto shoes  stumbles on a tree root the council have tried to cover over with flexible tarmac, breaking the shoe heel and spraining her ankle. Her big heel days are over and thus she now has no chance of attracting a suitable partner.

Life is just a series of accidents waiting to happen. And noxious events are associated with getting depressed. People who suffer adverse ‘life events’ seem more likely to suffer from a variety of health problems, including depressive episodes. This led researchers to try and measure such events using rating scales. For instance the Holmes and Rahe Scale gave a numerical score to various life changes, divorce for instance scoring 73, getting fired scoring 47.

Interestingly, supposedly positive life events like marriage (50), marital reconciliation (45) and outstanding personal achievement (28) also were associated with Depression.

Later on life events scales were refined by allowing for context, which also made them a bit subjective and unwieldy, compared with a checklist.

Further on it was argued that certain people were predisposed both to exposing themselves to adverse events and getting depressed. So the relationship between adversity and mental health was less causal than it might seem.

Either way, whether we are accident prone or unlucky, surely if Depression is associated with ‘hardship’ it would pay to make people tougher?

In an earlier era of psychology experiment, scientists tested the pain thresholds of various cultural groups. A unit for measuring pain, the dol, was developed, by applying a hot thing to a subject’s skin.

One experiment attempted to calibrate labour pain in dols, by applying the hot thing to the subjects hand, between contractions. That’s a bit of a departure from the sort of birth plan the National Childbirth Trust would recommend .

This tells us mainly that scientists and their subjects were much tougher in the mid twentieth century. But were they also a bit dumber?

Everyone knows about the Milgram experiment in 1963, where people seemed strangely willing to obey an authority figure who told them to give electric shocks to subjects.

The findings went with the grain of sixties liberalism – that we all could be monsters, given the right circumstances. Following this vibe, Milgram merely found what he was looking for, seemingly cooking the method to get the outcome he desired.   Milgram’s work has been debunked*, but nevertheless will live on for all time in a zillion Social Science for Dummies textbooks.

Much like another favourite, the Rosenhan Study, the one where non-ill researchers admitted themselves to  psychiatric hospitals like mystery shoppers and were all found to be psychotic. The results were grossly exaggerated but enjoyed and endlessly propagated by those who would debunk psychiatrists, which is most of us. At least we are always on the lookout for mystery shopper style researchers.

Maybe the world of academic psychology in the 1960s was just a very tough period in history, like the wild west, or the Roman empire. People got up in the morning fully expecting senseless violence and thought nothing much of a little light electrocution before lunch.

So if they had the dol unit in the 1940s, it would probably have been affected by grade inflation over the years, or even completely re-valued, like the French Franc in 1960, where 100 suddenly became 1.

Help is at hand in the form of Resilience Coaching. If we could do to the Holmes Rahe Scale what France did to the Franc, then we will laugh away tragedy as minor inconvenience.

However, from an ergonomic point of view I’d still like to see a complete redesign of both the Iphone and the ice cream. The ice cream should be shaped more like the phone and vice versa.

Heels are more difficult, but I’m thinking if the Niqab gets banned by parliament could challenging shoes get included in the legislation?

*Behind the Shock Machine, the untold story of the notorious Milgram psychology experiments, by Gina Perry.