October 24th, 2021


Worst-First Thinking Is Making Us Dumb

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published Oct. 11, 2021

Worst-First Thinking Is Making Us Dumb
Side hugs. Hugs that you do sort of hip-to-hip with an arm around the huggee's shoulder, as if you're doing the can-can. Counselors are allowed to give those hugs at the day camp my friend's kids went to. But "frontal" hugs were outlawed in 2010. Why?

Isn't it obvious? They're perverse! They could involve genital contact! Why, they're practically sexual assault!

Or so the thinking goes. I'm sure the possibility of actually being sued IS lurking in the camp director's mind. But basically the camp has taken a normal part of life — the hug — and turned it into an orgy of, well ... that's it. The rule-makers turned hugs into something akin to orgies, thanks to a new outlook on life I call "worst-first" thinking.

Worst-first is when you jump to the very WORST conclusion first. For instance (and for real): a young man was shopping at the grocery store when he passed a mom with her little kid in the cart, and he waved to them. Sweet.

In the next aisle, he saw and waved to them again.

When he got to the third aisle, the manager came over and asked him to leave.

What could the young man have been doing that was bad? "Grooming" the tot to crawl over to his place later? Grooming the mom so she'd hire him as a babysitter? Neither scenario makes any sense. But worst-first thinking isn't about sense. It's about imagining the most repulsive possibility, no matter how outlandish, and acting as if it were already happening.

It's an impulse we are being encouraged to adopt.

Think of all those "What Would You Do?"-type shows. The one I really despise involves a little girl (really an actress) playing on the swings at the park when a man ambles over and starts chatting with her.

The TV reporter lambastes anyone who didn't stop this man dead in his tracks and lauds anyone who butted in and said, "Hey, get away from her!"

In other words, the TV show teaches us that anyone NOT engaged in worst-first thinking is either dangerously naive or hideously callous. Because apparently any man in any park talking to kids is a predator. The non-intervening onlookers were cast as cowards, but the worst-first thinkers were praised for their caring - for saving a child.

This outlook explains why so many people feel smug when they think the worst first. They feel vigilant because our society has started equating paranoia with good citizenship. Gosh, there was a public service announcement running a while back that showed two women in a coffee shop, one of them with a kid. The three of them chat for about 15 seconds, and then the mom buys coffee and leaves with her daughter, slightly rushed, whereupon the other woman — for no apparent reason — tingles with the spidey-sense that the mom is a child abuser.

And she is urged to act! "If you even SUSPECT abuse, call the abuse hotline. Trust your instincts," says the announcer.

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Trust your instincts to what? Suspect every seemingly normal parent of hiding a deep, dark secret?

It's too bad those advertising geniuses weren't around for the McCarthy hearings — they could have cleaned up! "If you even SUSPECT your neighbor is a Communist..." And if only we'd had public service announcements in 17th century Salem: "If thou even SUSPECTETH sorcery..."

The problem is that in our commendable desire to keep kids safe, we have gone overboard and started seeing the very worst in even the most benign circumstances.

That's not making it harder to hurt a kid. It's making it harder to be human.