The Semmelweis Reflex explains why people reject the new

Do people reflexively fear the new? They seem to reject it often enough that there's a psychological syndrome to explain it. The Semmelweis Reflex is named after a guy who came up with a radical idea that could have saved thousands of lives — only to see everyone reject it and continue with the killing.

Ignaz Semmelweis was a smart guy. He was an observant guy. These qualities did not serve him well. He was a doctor, and one of the things he observed was other doctors walking straight from treating the dying, and cutting up the dead, to the maternity wards where women were giving birth. He also noticed that the maternity wards had some absolutely horrible death rates. Women were better off giving birth on their own than going to the hospital.

Illustration for article titled The Semmelweis Reflex explains why people reject the new

After some time, and some more observation, he came up with a solution. It would be much better if physicians washed their hands somewhere between handling sick patients and newborn babies. Physicians, as a whole, said, "To hell with that guy." Some became even more stubborn about not washing. Semmelweis died impoverished in a mental institution.

Since his death, medical science realized that he was right. He was so simply and obviously right, and so universally scorned, that he became the namesake of the Semmelweis Reflex. This is a name informally given to the rejection of a new idea or evidence simply because it's new. The reflex stems from people's unwillingness to shake up the customs they're used to — after all, no amount of evidence could ever be enough to make people do that.

This certainly happens, but is it really a reflex? Even Semmelweis's own case suggests that there's more to it than that. Semmelweis wasn't just asking doctors to do something new; he was saying that they'd actually been killing their patients. That had to be a bitter pill for doctors to swallow.

There was also the matter of reprisals for those who hadn't followed Semmelweis' directives once they were released. Medical lawsuits aren't new. A lot of pride and money were resting on Semmelweis being wrong.

Via Process Studies.



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So, perhaps the lesson of the story is to always propose new ideas and procedures without strongly condemning the old ones or assigning blame.

Don't say, "Um, look folks, you're killing people, and have killed people, here if don't wash your hands between patients."

Instead say, "Cross-patient infection might throw off our correct diagnoses of things. Do all you can to isolate patients from one anther, this includes yourself as a potential vector. At least wash your hands to reduce this potential." Which doesn't really imply blame so strongly.