Our neighbours, Neil and Emma, had a close shave in Phuket on Boxing Day. Seconds before the wave destroyed the hotel terrace on which they were breakfasting, they were able to escape up a handily placed hill. They relocated to a different hotel for a couple of days before flying home.
In general, the closer your proximity to the blood and gore of a disaster, the greater your risk of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) - but a fascinating detail of Neil's account of their experience was the reaction of the guests at the nearby hotel. 'They had not witnessed the tsunami itself and not once in the two days we were there did one of them ask any of us survivors if we were all right or if there was anything they could do to help. There were just some narky remarks about how hard it had become to find a table at breakfast. We were very much an unwelcome intrusion into their holiday idyll.'
The Britons, Americans and Scandinavians staying there were misled by the hotel staff as to the extent of the disaster, to avoid losing valuable guests. But the hotel rooms had television, and Neil doubts that the guests could not have known how bad it had been. 'I suppose they just did not want to take it on board,' he suggests. Indeed, I heard several interviews on the radio with holidaymakers in the region refusing to let the wave ruin their Christmas break.
On hearing about the disaster at home, some people dropped everything and leapt on a plane to go and help out. Had those visitors Neil met been watching the disaster unfold on their television at home while digesting the turkey, many would have been moved to donate a few quid to the disaster fund. But having shelled out thousands to be on a beach a stone's throw away, they were buggered if they were going to let a few tidal waves get in the way of their hard-earned break.
In some ways I can sympathise. On holiday in Antigua we spent most of the time locked away in our hotel on the beach; when we spent a day driving around the island, the gulf between our luxury and the abject poverty was uncomfortable. Whether trekking in northern India or the South American jungle, I have gobbled antibiotics to deal with my severe stomach upsets, trying not to be too aware of the one in four under-five-year-olds who would die from the lack thereof.
If we really grasped the enormity of global traumas (not just natural disasters, but genocides or the climate change caused by fuel from the planes that fly us to the sun), most of us would probably be suffering from PTSD. Surrounded by our largely unneeded Christmas presents, we found the tsunami briefly swamping our defences against the inequities of the modern world - so long as we were at home and could afford the feelings and the 20 quid to the disaster fund.
The tsunami remained the lead item on the Today programme for 13 days. Thank God that's over and we can get back to sipping our cocktails by the swimming pool of our developed world, blowing the rose-tinted bubbles of positive illusions with which we all insulate ourselves from the horror. Truly did TS Eliot write, 'humankind cannot bear much reality'.
The mental block
Very thin models contribute to eating disorders, but would the use of average-weight ones reduce them?
The risk of developing eating disorders was assessed in 276 American female university students (Psychology of Addictive Behaviours, 2004, vol 18, pp394-7). Several weeks later, they were shown 10 images either of thin or average-weight women. The extent to which they held the belief that being thin would lead them to be better in every way (a core misconception among the 'eating disordered') was measured.
Students at high risk of eating disorders who were exposed to averagely weighted women were significantly less likely to believe that being thin would make them better people, compared with high-risk students exposed to thin models.
So, using Renée Zellweger at her Bridget Jones weight in ads, rather than at her usual size, could reduce eating disorders. Men might prefer ogling the real-life RZ, but wouldn't they rather reduce the risk of eating disorders among their daughters?
In a recent study, 93 Canadian undergraduates were asked how much they spent on gifts to different people (Psychology and Marketing, 2003, vol 20, pp765-84). The most was spent on romantic partners, then on kin relations, then on close friends.
This would suggest that the genetically inherited priorities of young people are, respectively, to reproduce, to keep the family sweet, and to create reciprocal obligations with potentially useful friends. Bah humbug!