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What Radium Poisoning Can Teach You About Your Psychology

WWI, radium, and the power of cognitive dissonance.

What’s everyone’s favorite war? WWII, of course. It’s got it all. Bombs, injustice, war crimes. It’s the sequel that somehow performed better than the original. However, it’s the first in the series, WWI, of which I would like you to turn your attention. For there you will find a tale that is most interesting. One that has to do with radium, watch painters, and cognitive dissonance. (Source)

It’s the 1910s. Radium is the hot commodity. Yes, radium – the glowing radioactive metal that contributed to the death of  Marie Curie. But this was before she died. In the 1910s, radium was the thing. It was the it-girl of its time. And coincidentally, that’s who spent a lot of time with it. Young women.

The US entered WWI in 1917.

At home, the war effort was front and center. Everyone wanted to do their part. Victory gardens and all that. In New Jersey, a business appeared. One that promised great pay, safe working conditions, and a magical time. Magical because of the product they handled. Radium. With its glowing novelty, the company was the dream job for every impoverished young woman in the area. Their task: paint watch dials.


Visible at night

The military wanted watches that glowed in the dark. And what the military wanted, the military got. So the United States Radium Corporation got to work. They built a lab. In that lab, they created a paint that could be seen at night. It’s secret sauce: radium. Radium, the magic substance that glowed green and had a half-life of a thousand+ years.

The women of the factory were tasked with painting watch dials with that special formula. It was their contribution to the war effort. And, for a while, they had a great time doing it. Often called ghost girls, they literally glowed walking down the street at night due to the paint powder stuck to their hair, clothes, and skin.

Calling them ghost girls served as foreshadowing. Within a few years, the girls started to die painful deaths. One after another. It took some time, but eventually, a number of investigations were underway. Their finding: the women were dying because of the radium. Surprise.


“It’s healthy!”

For years, radium was considered a miracle product. It was said to heal ailments and improve your life. The women were constantly assured by the company that the paint was safe to use. Actually, not only safe but likely beneficial to them. The company made these claims because they believed them. Until people started dying, they were advocates of the material. In fact, the company founder could often be seen playing with radium in his bare hands. He felt it safe like everyone else.

Then things started to turn. Women started to get sick. Really sick. Their jaws literally began to fall apart. Others lost the ability to walk. Many died.

Yet though there were rumors, the company maintained its claim that radium was good for you. After all, many of those sickly women had left the company’s employ years ago. Surely their injuries were caused by something else. Turns out, many studies later, radium isn’t so good for you after all. Their injuries were caused by the work.


When you and reality don’t agree

The head of the company at the time was in a tough spot. He had been touting the health of radium for years. I have no way of knowing this, but I assume he didn’t intentionally want people to suffer or die. However, when he began to receive reports detailing the dangers of radium, he refused to accept them. He tried to ignore them. He tried to cover them up. And he tried to fight them.

The reality he sought no longer matched the true reality of the situation. His reality was that of a successful business person. The true reality was that his denials were turning him into a corrupt villain. The difference between the two worlds is known psychologically as cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is the feeling when reality doesn’t match what you want it to be. As explained by Healthline, “This incompatibility (dissonance) could happen when you do something that goes against a value that’s important to you. Or maybe you learn a new piece of information that disagrees with a long-standing belief or opinion.” For example, “Purchasing a new car that is not fuel efficient, despite being environmentally conscious.” Or, “Eating meat while also thinking of themselves as an animal lover who dislikes the thought of killing animals.” (Source) In these situations, people will:

  • “Try to hide their actions or beliefs from others
  • Rationalize their actions or choices continuously
  • Shy away from conversations or debates about specific topics
  • Avoid learning new information that goes against their existing beliefs
  • Ignore research, newspaper articles, or doctor’s advice that causes dissonance”

In short, they pretend nothing is wrong.


Move in a better direction

How do you know you’re experiencing cognitive dissonance? And better still, how can you use that information to improve your life?

Psych Central suggests, “Self-awareness seems to be a key to understanding how and when cognitive dissonance may play a role in your life. If you find yourself justifying or rationalizing decisions or behaviors that you’re not quite clear you firmly believe in, that might be a sign that cognitive dissonance is at work. If your explanation for something is, ‘Well, that’s the way I’ve always done it or thought about it,’ that may also be a sign. Socrates extolled that ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’ In other words, challenge and be skeptical of such answers if you find yourself falling back on them.”

It would seem that defensiveness is a sign something is amiss. If you find yourself holding onto an idea when reality is clearly showing you otherwise, it might be time to reevaluate. Leave the building. Go for a walk. Take some deep breaths. Then consider if maybe, just maybe, what you believe to be true isn’t.

It’s too late for the United States Radium Corporation to right the ship, but it’s not too late for you.

PS: If you want to find out what happened to the rest of the radium girls and the companies that employed them, check out the book: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore.

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