Do the emotional paper-cuts hurt the worst?
When truly bad things happen, they cross a threshold, triggering mechanisms that help us to recover. To use one of Gilbert’s examples: if a woman discovers her husband has been having an affair, she may draw on all her powers of rationalization, convincing herself it was something he had to get out of his system, or that it’s a crisis from which they’ll emerge stronger. By contrast, if his only fault is leaving dirty dishes in the sink, her cognitive defences won’t kick in. So her anger at the lesser failing may bubble longer.
This isn’t how we think suffering works: we assume that the bigger the trauma, the more enduring the distress. But the Gilbert study shows that assumption is often false: participants recovered faster from an insult directed at themselves (a relatively major event) than from witnessing one directed at someone else. People severely affected by terror attacks, some experts argue, can suffer less long-term trauma than those less affected.
The full article pretty much stands on its own as an explanation of why the way the toilet seat is left annoys us so much.
But, it’s also worth noting that this is really the foundational explanation as to why terrorism works. Relative to the entire population, nearly no one in the entire United States was hurt, killed or lost a loved one in 9/11. But, the breathless repetition of and focus upon that attack from the media ensures that the general population is being repeatedly traumatized and has nearly no defences against such.
In other words, terrorism only works if the victims of such are willing to tolerate a media keeping them in FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Despair.)