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Joseph Cramer, M.D.: Changing the world one truth at a time

Published: Monday, May 13 2013 5:38 p.m. MDT

One of the best ways to fight wrong is with truth. Overcoming error starts with the facts. Truth does not have to be amplified or inflated to add power to its inherent might.

Truth is the means to combat social ills or to put human experiences into perspective. It is one tool to redirect behavior and to bolster individual resolve.

A common challenge of most universities other than those that are stone cold sober is the overabundance of alcohol consumption. It varies from death by ethanol poisoning to binge drinking, underage participation, injuries associated with intoxication, and undesirable behaviors prompted by an inebriated mind.

When a youngster leaves home for the first time and enters the liberating world of college, there is a rite of passage that too often involves drinking. It is easily excused because everyone does it.

Everyone gets blasted on the weekends. Everyone is expected to party 24/7. Everyone kneels in worship of the porcelain god. Everyone boasts about the last time they were stupidly smashed. Everyone laughs at the loss of human dignity when they puked or peed or lost all elements of decency.

The problem is that everyone doesn’t do it. The truth is that not all students practice what everyone “knows” is so.

To address this gap between reality and perception and to confront the dangers of youthful excessive drinking, activists have turned to social norm initiatives. These interventions work under the premise that if someone knows the truth of the larger group, they will act more appropriately.

If people think that 75 percent of the population does X, such as underage drinking, then it is easier to justify their behavior of joining the masses. It further undermines someone to take an alternative position. However, if the truth is that some but not all participate, then there is less self-justification and more self-discipline. In other words, truth increases agency and freedom.

While there is a growing disregard of some to complete social conformity, there are still basic rules of comportment that facilitate human interactions. Yet, when a person or, worse, a generation becomes more self-centered, then both the influence of and the concern for others diminishes.

If we don’t care if someone is hurt physically or emotionally, then it is less likely we will pay attention to their opinions. How we dress or act is of no consequence to another for whom we have no opinion or we actively ignore.

Therefore, the task is to not only publicize the prevalence of crimes and corruptions but to promote the frequency of goodness. It further involves the social urgency to enhance empathy. If we care for others and feel as they feel, we increase the chance that we will consider our behavior in the light of another’s eyes.

Social norm initiatives to decrease campus consumption have worked in settings of increased parental participation, community engagement and administrative support. These same efforts have been less successful if there is an attitude of disregard or commercial entities that profit from the students' immaturity.

Social norm programs can be applied to an assortment of pro-social or anti-social behaviors. If it is understood that many in the community volunteer or contribute to pro-social causes, then those thinking about joining in will increase and the excuse to not participate decreases. Knowing that someone like the rest of us can find the time or resources to help reduces our excuses.

Likewise, if we are feeling isolated in our cause, knowing there are others of similar persuasion fortifies our resolve.

Life is full of pushmi-pullyus, the mythical animal of Dr. Doolittle. The pushmi-pullyu was a llama-like crossbreed with front feet and head and neck on both ends. Going forward would mean the opposite based on which end was leading.

When we know the truth, the moral pushmi-pullyus diminish and make it easier to move forward to the right choice because everyone does it.

Joseph Cramer, M.D., is a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, practicing pediatrician for 30 years, and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah. He can be reached at jgcramermd@yahoo.com.

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