The Semmelweis Reflex – Lifting the Curtain of Normalcy

Date: December 1, 2011 | Shawn Herbig | News | Comments Off on The Semmelweis Reflex – Lifting the Curtain of Normalcy

I am sure we have all encountered an instance in our life where we could not break out of our comfort zone to accept the truth of  a situation.  Go ahead, think about it.  Maybe you are a board member faced with a company wide restructuring after you have been doing things your way for 20 years.  Or maybe you’re dealing with the fact that technology is changing so fast that you decide not to keep up with it anymore.

We as humans experience this because we are creatures of habit.  We are socialized at a young age to expect the norms of a situation or construct, and it becomes very hard for us to break free of those norms – even if it is harming you or others.  This is called the Semmelweis Reflex, and it happens when humans fail to accept new knowledge because it goes against what they believe to be true.  The paradigms that we live within, those that define our professional and personal lives, are hard to break down in light of change – and unless that change comes in a manner we can come to accept, then it is very difficult for us to break out of our normalcy.  I previously posted on the Affect Heuristic, whereby action is taken contrary to evidence.  Here, though, we talk more about not acting at all in light of something new.

Let’s not take this too lightly.  Because we are creatures of habit, our tendencies to accept the status quo regardless of the consequences associated with it becomes a psychological issue.  If we have known something to be true our entire life, or career, then we become less likely to abandon that in light of something new and potentially paradigm shattering.  The psychological barriers embedded in our ways of thinking are very firm.

To put this into context, let’s take a look at who Semmelweis was and why he has a behavior heuristic named after him.  Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician known largely for his antiseptic procedures.  However, it was his use of antiseptics that created the initial controversy.  Semmelweis found that the instances of childbed fever could be greatly reduced if doctors washed their hands in a chlorine solution before gynecological examinations.  His theory largely challenged the medical community’s longstanding practices and beliefs surrounding such fever, and despite the compelling evidence that Semmelweis presented, he was ridiculed and rejected within the medical community.

One may ask why the medical community did not accept or at the very least look into the claims of sterilization submitted by Semmelweis.  While it may seem commonsense now, this is a clear example of how paradigms can be so difficult to break down.  Simply put, it was not accepted because people did not want to accept it.

Let’s look at another and perhaps more relevant example:  the debate surrounding man’s contribution to global warming.  Never mind for a moment which side of the fence you are on regarding this position; that is immaterial when trying to explain why so many do not accept the evidence surrounding the issue.  Even though 97% of climate scientists believe that global warming is indeed caused by humans, around 40% of the American public believe these effects are being exaggerated.  But once we take into consideration the psychology behind such a paradigm shifting topic such as this, then the disparity between the evidence and beliefs becomes more easily understandable.  When people have to change their behaviors to accept the evidence, such as being more environmentally conscious, then the longer it takes us to shift our world views.

The real key then becomes how to better sell new ideas when they challenge existing norms.  Norms do have a way of changing over time (as we know that all doctors these days sterilize their hands before procedures).  In terms of research, this is a very big challenge.  Research, by definition, is the attempt to find the unknown answers to our questions.  Because these answers are not known, they oftentimes challenge the status quo.  And because habits die hard, the answers must be packaged in such a way as to avoid the conflicts that can come about from catching someone off guard.

In light of this, the burden exists not just on one party; real change only comes when both presenter and receiver of the information can come to an understanding.  Every single one of us has our comfort zones.  Semmelweis’ message did not work because he did not package it correctly.  “Do this or people die” is not a good advertisement to get others to catch on.  It also didn’t work because people did not want to move away from what they knew for so long.  Thus, the message must be made real to those needing to accept it.  Conclusions carefully presented with evidence can be a more “marketable” idea.

New ideas that challenge existing norms must be gently presented in a way that is not threatening to those who would benefit from the knowledge – lest those ideas become rejected and ridiculed.  And in those situations, everyone loses.

view all