Jim Sidanius is a Professor in the departments of Psychology and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. His primary research interests include the political psychology of gender, group conflict, institutional discrimination and the evolutionary psychology of intergroup prejudice.
At thesecond annual conference on Law and Mind Sciences, which took place im March of 2008, Professor Sidanius’s fascinating presentation was titled ““Under Color of Authority: Terror, Intergroup Violence and ‘The Law.’” Here’s the abstract:
While instances of inter-communal violence and genocide are obvious and immensely tragic, what is not as readily appreciated is the widespread extent and ferocity of the intergroup violence that is channeled through legal and criminal justice systems. Given the fact that the legal and criminal justice systems are disproportionately controlled by members of dominant rather than subordinate social groups, social dominance theory argues that a substantial portion of the output of the criminal justice system can be seen as a form of intergroup violence, the function of which is to maintain the structural integrity of group-based social hierarchy.
His talk was videotaped (though with poor lighting), and you can watch it on the three (roughly 9-minute) videos below.
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For more information about the March 2008 PLMS conference, click here.
The rationale behind torture is that pain will make the guilty confess, but a new study by researchers at Harvard University finds that the pain of torture can make even the innocent seem guilty.
Participants in the study met a woman suspected of cheating to win money. The woman was then “tortured” by having her hand immersed in ice water while study participants listened to the session over an intercom. She never confessed to anything, but the more she suffered during the torture, the guiltier she was perceived to be.
The research, published in the “Journal of Experimental Social Psychology,” was conducted by Kurt Gray, graduate student in psychology, and Daniel M. Wegner, professor of psychology, both in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
“Our research suggests that torture may not uncover guilt so much as lead to its perception,” says Gray. “It is as though people who know of the victim’s pain must somehow convince themselves that it was a good idea—and so come to believe that the person who was tortured deserved it.”
Not all torture victims appear guilty, however. When participants in the study only listened to a recording of a previous torture session—rather than taking part as witnesses of ongoing torture—they saw the victim who expressed more pain as less guilty. Gray explains the different results as arising from different levels of complicity.
“Those who feel complicit with the torture have a need to justify the torture, and so link the victim’s pain to blame,” says Gray. “On the other hand, those distant from torture have no need to justify it and so can sympathize with the suffering of the victim, linking pain to innocence.”
The study included 78 participants: half met the woman who was apparently tortured (actually a confederate of the experimenters who was, of course, not harmed at all), and half did not. Participants were told that the study was about moral behavior, and that the woman may have cheated by taking more money than she deserved. The experimenter suggested that a stressful situation might make a guilty person confess, so participants listened for a confession over a hidden intercom as she was subjected to the sham “torture.”
The confederate did not admit to cheating but reacted to having her hand submerged in ice water with either indifference or with whimpering and pleading. Participants who had met her rated her as more guilty the more she suffered. Those who did not meet her rated her as more guilty when she felt less pain.
Gray suggests that these results offer an explanation for the debate swirling around torture.
“Seeing others in pain can perpetuate ideological differences about the justifiability of torture,” says Gray. “Those who initially advocate torture see those harmed as guilty, unlike those who initially reject torture and its methods.”
The findings also shed light on the Abu Ghraib scandal, where prison guards tortured Iraqi detainees. Prison guards, who are close to the suffering of detainees, see detainees as more guilty the more they suffer, unlike the more distant general public.
The case is still open on whether torture actually makes victims more likely to tell the truth. This research suggests instead that the mere fact that someone was tortured leads observers to think that the truth was found.
If you’re craving a quick hit of optimism, reading a news magazine is probably not the best way to go about finding it. As the life coaches and motivational speakers have been trying to tell us for more than a decade now, a healthy, positive mental outlook requires strict abstinence from current events in all forms. Instead, you should patronize sites like Happynews.com, where the top international stories of the week include “Jobless Man Finds Buried Treasure” and “Adorable ‘Teacup Pigs’ Are Latest Hit with Brits.”
Or of course you can train yourself to be optimistic through sheer mental discipline. Ever since psychologist Martin Seligman crafted the phrase “learned optimism” in 1991 and started offering optimism training, there’s been a thriving industry in the kind of thought reform that supposedly overcomes negative thinking. You can buy any number of books and DVDs with titles like Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude, in which you will learn mental exercises to reprogram your outlook from gray to the rosiest pink: “affirmations,” for example, in which you repeat upbeat predictions over and over to yourself; “visualizations” in which you post on your bathroom mirror pictures of that car or boat you want; “disputations” to refute any stray negative thoughts that may come along. If money is no object, you can undergo a three-month “happiness makeover” from a life coach or invest $3,575 for three days of “optimism training” on a Good Mood Safari on the coast of New South Wales. . . .
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Americans have long prided themselves on being “positive” and optimistic — traits that reached a manic zenith in the early years of this millennium. Iraq would be a cakewalk! The Dow would reach 36,000! Housing prices could never decline! Optimism was not only patriotic, it was a Christian virtue, or so we learned from the proliferating preachers of the “prosperity gospel,” whose God wants to “prosper” you. In 2006, the runaway bestseller The Secret promised that you could have anything you wanted, anything at all, simply by using your mental powers to “attract” it. The poor listened to upbeat preachers like Joel Osteen and took out subprime mortgages. The rich paid for seminars led by motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and repackaged those mortgages into securities sold around the world. . . .
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Below are some excerpts from the introduction of her new book explaining that, optimism notwithstanding, Americans are not necessarily better off.
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Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third, surpassed by the Dutch, the Danes, the Malaysians, the Bahamians, the Austrians, and even the supposedly dour Finns. In another potential sign of relative distress, Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. To my knowledge, no one knows how antidepressant use affects people’s responses to happiness surveys: do respondents report being happy because the drugs make them feel happy or do they report being unhappy because they know they are dependent on drugs to make them feel better? Without our heavy use of antidepressants, Americans would likely rank far lower in the happiness rankings than we currently do.
When economists attempt to rank nations more objectively in terms of “well-being,” taking into account such factors as health, environmental sustainability, and the possibility of upward mobility, the United States does even more poorly than it does when only the subjective state of “happiness” is measured. The Happy Planet Index, to give just one example, locates us at 150th among the world’s nations.
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But of course it takes the effort of positive thinking to imagine that America is the “best” or the “greatest.” Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts, the American score is dismal, and was dismal even before the economic downturn that began in 2007. Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. They are also more likely to die in infancy or grow up in poverty. Almost everyone acknowledges that our health care system is “broken” and our physical infrastructure crumbling. We have lost so much of our edge in science and technology that American companies have even begun to outsource their research and development efforts. Worse, some of the measures by which we do lead the world should inspire embarrassment rather than pride: We have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income. We are plagued by gun violence and racked by personal debt.
While positive thinking has reinforced and found reinforcement in American national pride, it has also entered into a kind of symbiotic relationship with American capitalism. There is no natural, innate affinity between capitalism and positive thinking. In fact, one of the classics of sociology, Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, makes a still impressive case for capitalism’s roots in the grim and punitive outlook of Calvinist Protestantism, which required people to defer gratification and resist all pleasurable temptations in favor of hard work and the accumulation of wealth.
But if early capitalism was inhospitable to positive thinking, “late” capitalism, or consumer capitalism, is far more congenial, depending as it does on the individual’s hunger for more and the firm’s imperative of growth. The consumer culture encourages individuals to want more — cars, larger homes, television sets, cell phones, gadgets of all kinds — and positive thinking is ready at hand to tell them they deserve more and can have it if they really want it and are willing to make the effort to get it. Meanwhile, in a competitive business world, the companies that manufacture these goods and provide the paychecks that purchase them have no alternative but to grow. If you don’t steadily increase market share and profits, you risk being driven out of business or swallowed by a larger enterprise. Perpetual growth, whether of a particular company or an entire economy, is of course an absurdity, but positive thinking makes it seem possible, if not ordained.
In addition, positive thinking has made itself useful as an apology for the crueler aspects of the market economy. If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimistic outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure. The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must because you didn’t try hard enough, didn’t believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a “victim” and a “whiner.”
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You can read more about the book and purchase it here. You can listen to an excellent, half-hour Talk of the Nation interview of Barbara Ehrenreich about the book here.
Aaron C. Kay, Danielle Gaucher, Jennifer M. Peach, Kristin Laurin, Justin Friesen, Mark P. Zanna, and Steven J. Spencer have recently published their article, “Inequality, Discrimination, and the Power of the Status Quo: Direct Evidence for a Motivation to See the Way Things Are as the Way They Should Be” (97 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 421– 434 (2009). Here’s the abstract.
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How powerful is the status quo in determining people’s social ideals? The authors propose (a) that people engage in injunctification, that is, a motivated tendency to construe the current status quo as the most desirable and reasonable state of affairs (i.e., as the most representative of how things should be); (b) that this tendency is driven, at least in part, by people’s desire to justify their sociopolitical systems; and (c) that injunctification has profound implications for the maintenance of inequality and societal change. Four studies, across a variety of domains, provided supportive evidence. When the motivation to justify the sociopolitical system was experimentally heightened, participants injunctified extant (a) political power (Study 1), (b) public funding policies (Study 2), and (c) unequal gender demographics in the political and business spheres (Studies 3 and 4, respectively). It was also demonstrated that this motivated phenomenon increased derogation of those who act counter to the status quo (Study 4). Theoretical implications for system justification theory, stereotype formation, affirmative action, and the maintenance of inequality are discussed.
I recently stumbled upon a really provocative paper by Anders Kaye entitled, “The Secret Politics of the Compatibilist Criminal Law.” Given that one of the key issues addressed in the paper is whether compatibilist theories of free will–which focus very heavily on dispositional traits and conscious mental states–can accommodate situational forces that are criminogenic (e.g., poverty and early childhood abuse). According to Kaye, compatibilist theories of free will and responsibility have been used by contemporary legal retributivists such as Michael Moore and Stephen Morse to shield the criminal law from developments in behavioral science, criminology, etc. that might otherwise lead to a less punitive justice system as well as a more egalitarian society. In short, Kaye suggests that compatibilism is not a “politically innocent” theory of free will. Here is the abstract:
Many criminal theorists say that we have a ‘compatibilist’ criminal law, by which they mean that in our criminal law a person can deserve punishment for her acts even if she does not have ‘genuinely’ free will. This conception of the criminal law harbors and is driven by a secret politics, one that resists social change and idealizes the existing social order. In this Article, I map this secret politics. In so doing, I call into question the descriptive accuracy of the compatibilist account of the criminal law, and set the stage for a franker discussion of criminal punishment – one that recognizes that the perpetual struggle to say just who ‘deserves’ punishment is driven as much by brute politics and the competition to allocate power and resources in society as by any independent moral logic.
There is already a heated debate about Kaye’s novel line of reasoning over at The Garden of Forking Paths. However, it would be nice to see an active comment thread here at The Situationist as well. So, please take a look at the paper and then give us your thoughts!
Despite concerted efforts to combat human trafficking, the trade in persons persists and, in fact, continues to grow. This article suggests that a central reason for the limited success in preventing human trafficking is the dominant conception of the problem, which forms the basis for law developed to combat human trafficking. Specifically, the author argues that “otherness” is a root cause of both inaction and the selective nature of responses to the abusive practice of human trafficking. Othering operates across multiple dimensions, including race, gender, ethnicity, class, caste, culture, and geography, to reinforce a conception of a virtuous “Self” and a devalued “Other.” This article exposes how this Self/Other dichotomy shapes the phenomenon of human trafficking, driving demand for trafficked persons, influencing perceptions of the problem, and constraining legal initiatives to end the abuse. By examining human trafficking through an otherness-aware framework, this article aims to elucidate a deeper understanding of human trafficking and offer a prescription for reducing the adverse effects of otherness on both efforts to combat human trafficking and the individuals that now suffer such abuses.
Tom Jacobs, on Miller-McCune has a helpful summary, titled “Fearing Death? Think Progress,” of fascinating research on terror management theory. Here are some excerpts.
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[M]ost of us cling to the notion of human progress, insisting that our children will inhabit a more just society, or that our own contribution will make the world a better place. Why? Three social psychologists from the University of Amsterdam have come up with a reason: It makes it easier to accept the reality of our own deaths.
Not unlike religious faith, “belief in progress provides a protective existential buffer,” according to a paper just published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Expanding on the ideas of Terror Management Theory, lead author Bastiaan T. Rutjens argues that the belief in progress, which can be traced back to such Enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire and Hume, is “a secular faith” that is “one way of pervading our world with meaning.”
The researchers tested this thesis with three experiments. In the first and most central of these, 33 female participants wrote a short essay describing their thoughts and feelings about one of two subjects: dental pain, or their own deaths. After performing several additional tasks, they read an essay arguing that human progress is an illusion.
Finally, they were asked a series of questions to determine the extent to which they agreed with the anti-progress argument. Those who had thought about their own mortality were significantly less likely to accept the argument than those who had opined about toothaches.
The researchers consider this particular defense mechanism a reasonably healthy psychological response. After all, they note, previous studies have found that when people are confronted with their own mortality, “they tend to rate individuals with different cultural beliefs as less intelligent” in an attempt to forge a feeling of solidarity with people of their own ethnicity or nationality.
Situationist fellow, Goutam Jois recently posted a fascinating, situationist paper provocatively titled, “Stare Decisis is Cognitive Error” on SSRN: Here’s the abstract.
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For hundreds of years, the practice of stare decisis – a court’s adherence to prior decisions in similar cases – has guided the common law. However, recent behavioral evidence suggests that stare decisis, far from enacting society’s true preferences with regard to law and policy, may reflect – and exacerbate – our cognitive biases.
The data show that humans are subconsciously primed (among other things) to prefer the status quo, to overvalue existing defaults, to follow others’ decisions, and to stick to the well-worn path. We have strong motives to justify existing legal, political, and social systems; to come up with simple explanations for observed phenomena; and to construct coherent narratives for the world around us. Taken together, these and other characteristics suggest that we value precedent not because it is desirable but merely because it exists. Three case studies – analyzing federal district court cases, U.S. Supreme Court cases, and development of American policy on torture – suggest that the theory of stare decisis as a heuristic has substantial explanatory power. In its strongest form, this hypothesis challenges the foundation of common law systems.
From the LAPD detective’s notes and Fox News via the Boston Globe:
After Rihanna read a text message on [Chris] Brown’s phone from a woman, he tried to force Rihanna out of the car, but couldn’t because she was wearing her seatbelt. Brown then allegedly slammed Rihanna’s head against her window, and when Rihanna turned to face him, he punched her.
The notes said blood spattered on Rihanna’s clothing and the interior of the Lamborghini.
Rihanna also called her assistant, according to FOX 11, leaving a message saying, “I am on my way home. Make sure the cops are there when I get there.”
Brown then reportedly replied, “You just did the stupidest thing ever. I’m going to kill you,” and proceeded to punch and bite Rihanna. He allegedly put her in a headlock so long that she almost lost consciousness.
Rihanna, who turned 21 a few weeks after the incident, was beaten severely enough to require hospitalization. Brown, 19, who reportedly had a history of violence toward Rihanna, turned himself in and was charged with two felonies.
[The just-world hypothesis] refers to the tendency for people to want to believe that the world is “just” so strongly that when they witness an otherwise inexplicable injustice they will rationalize it by searching for things that the victim might have done to deserve it. This deflects their anxiety, and lets them continue to believe the world is a just place, but at the expense of blaming victims for things that were not, objectively, their fault.
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In . . . [one] study, subjects were told two versions of a story about an interaction between a woman and a man. Both variations were exactly the same, except at the very end the man raped the woman in one and in the other he proposed marriage. In both conditions, subjects viewed the woman’s (identical) actions as inevitably leading to the (very different) results
A survey conducted by the Boston Public Health Commission on the dating violence incident involving pop music idols Chris Brown and Rihanna revealed that nearly half of Boston youths surveyed said she was “responsible” for what happened while 52 percent said they were both to blame.
“The story of Chris Brown and Rihanna may have happened 3,000 miles away, but it is very much a Boston story,” said Casey Corcoran, director of the Public Health Commission’s new Start Strong program.
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Corcoran’s program, housed in the Commission’s Division of Violence Prevention, surveyed 200 Boston youth ages 12 to 19, between Feb. 13 and 20, using the Chris Brown-Rihanna case to gauge their attitudes toward teen dating violence; 100 percent of those surveyed had heard about the incident.
Among the findings:
71% said arguing was a normal part of a relationship
44% said fighting was a normal part of a relationship
51% said Chris Brown was responsible for the incident
46% said Rihanna was responsible for the incident
52% said both individuals were to blame for the incident, despite knowing at the time that
Rihanna had been beaten badly enough to require hospital treatment
35% said the media were treating Rihanna unfairly
52% said the media were treating Chris Brown unfairly
In addition, a significant number of males and females in the survey said Rihanna was destroying Chris Brown’s career, and females were no less likely than males to come to Rihanna’s defense.
At the 2007 Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference, John Jost’s presentation was titled “System Justification and the Law.” Here is the abstract for his talk.
Although there can be little doubt that individual and group self-interest motivate human behavior to a considerable degree, research in social psychology has revealed a quite different and often powerful motive: the motive to defend and justify the social status quo. This motive is present (at least to some degree) even among those who are seemingly most disadvantaged by the status quo; in some cases, in fact, this motive is strongest among those who are the most severely disadvantaged. System justification theory seeks to elucidate the nature of this motive and the situations in which it operates.
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Dr. Jost will summarize recent theory and research concerning the various manifestations, antecedents and consequences of the system justification motive. He will also address its implications for the law, arguing that system justification motives sometimes result in behaviors that current legal thinking would not otherwise anticipate. For example, victims of discrimination or abuse complain less often than self interest would predict, and employees conceal evidence of corporate wrongdoing even at their own peril. The theory also speaks to the power of “framing” and suggests ways in which legal advocates can either amplify or dampen the system-justifying motives of those whom they would persuade. The existence of system justification poses significant psychological obstacles to social change in general and legal change in particular.
Below you can watch the videos of Jost’s fascinating presentation (roughly 30 minutes total).
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To watch similar videos, visit the video libraries on the Project on Law and Mind Sciences website (here) or visit PLMSTube.
For information on the Third PLMS conference (scheduled for March 7, 2009), click here.
In the Colorado Springs Gazette, Debbie Kelly has a nice article about the changing situation of Thomas Pyszczynski, a well known psychology professor at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (“UCCS”) who is one of several scholars behind terror management theory.
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Two decades ago, Thomas Pyszczynski’s ideas about how people use their cultural beliefs and values to shield themselves from anxiety about death — and how that plays out in international conflict — were viewed as kooky at worst, interesting at best. 9/11 changed all that.
In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Pyszczynski, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, was catapulted to visionary status. Words like “provocative” and “persuasive” replaced the doubts about his research, which led to a hypothesis he developed with two colleagues called “terror management theory.”
“He’d been bouncing around as a visiting assistant professor at two or three schools, and no one would hire him on a tenure track because his theories were iffy. We did. We thought he was going to be a star because he had a vision of a new way that social psychology would evolve. It turns out, he was absolutely right,” said Bob Durham, who was chair of the university’s psychology department in 1986, when Pyszczynski was hired.
Pyszczynski’s expertise on the social psychology of terrorism recently earned him one of the University of Colorado system’s highest honors: the title of distinguished professor. The award recognizes outstanding contributions to an academic discipline. In the 43-year history of UCCS, only one other faculty member has been bestowed the title from the board of regents, the university’s governing body.
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Pyszczynski’s ideas give insight into the connections between self esteem and human behavior, including ethnic violence and war.
And in the face of attack, his research showed, people tend to coalesce against a common enemy.
“So many of the things we’d seen happen in laboratory experiments played out in reality after 9/11,” he said.
“When Americans were faced with a dramatic reminder of death and vulnerability at the hands of people challenging our culture and values, we tried to discredit those people and get rid of them, and we became more enthusiastic about our own beliefs. The majority of Americans became more patriotic and Bush’s approval ratings almost doubled in a week.”
His terror management theory, developed in the mid-1980s, has been the basis for more than 350 studies in 20 countries, examining aggression, stereotyping, the need for meaning and structure, phobias, political preferences, martyrdom, group identification and related topics.
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At a recent reception in honor of Pyszczynski’s award, UCCS Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak said she is appreciative of the previous administrators who took a chance on hiring him “when he was not particularly mainstream.”
Then, she asked Pyszczynski, “How does it feel to be mainstream?”
Al Sahlstrom: Could you please briefly discuss the background of this research – what is social tuning and in what contexts have psychologists previously studied it?
Curtis Hardin: The observation that people can and do tune their attitudes toward the ostensible attitudes of others is an old and persistent one—dating at least to the dialogues of Plato (including The Republic and others). It is there at the inception of empirical psychology in the work of Wundt and Freud and James. It is there at the beginning of social psychology in the work of Sherif, Adorno, Lewin, Allport, and Asch. The problem of tuning in opinion surveys about racism, for example in which respondents expressed less racism toward black than white interviewers in the 1960s and 1970s, is arguably the precipitating finding that inspired the development of unobtrusive measures of prejudice including measures of implicit and automatic prejudice. The use of the term “tuning” was coined (I believe!) by Tory Higgins and colleagues in their “communication game” work that formally situated individual information-processing in social dynamics. Tuning and “anti-tuning” of this type as well as tuning-like phenomena captured in the classical social psychological literature formed one kind of evidence we have argued supports shared reality theory (Hardin & Higgins, 1996; Hardin & Conley, 2001).
AS: How does social tuning occur? Is it something that everyone does? Is it limited by situation or subject matter?
CH: Social tuning is so ubiquitous that many explanations have been forwarded for it, ranging from bald conformity all the way to tacit, automatized management of common ground in face-to-face conversation. It is certain that depending on the circumstance, any number of explanations could be in operation. That said, from the perspective of shared reality theory, social tuning of the type captured in the research we’ve shown you now is ubiquitous. According to shared reality theory, being engaged in an interpersonal relationship requires modulation of “shared reality” (which is evidenced by social tuning). The direction and magnitude of this kind of social tuning is very much determined by the quality of the relationship as well as which attitudes and experiences are either situationally or chronically relevant to that relationship. Our group hasn’t systematically studied subject matter as a potential moderating variable, but we do find that the degree to which the particular attitude is perceived to be relevant to the effective relationship very much qualifies whether tuning will occur and the direction in which it occurs.
AS: Your research approaches political ideology as something that is influenced by motivational processes. How does social tuning fit into this?
CH: In my view, research animated by system justification theory has focused most on epistemic and existential motivations. What we have begun to do—both in the Jost, Ledgerwood, & Hardin paper as well as experiments currently being done in my lab—is explore the possibility that another motivation for system justification may be relational. Corresponding to shared reality research, we’re starting to find evidence of both chronic relationship concerns in system justification as well as new or situationally relevant relationship concerns.
AS: Please tell me a little about the research you’re currently conducting on social tuning and political ideology. What exactly are you looking at and what have you found so far?
CH: Broadly, many experiments in my laboratory are exploring how individual experience at a given moment reflects a kind of tension among more than one interpersonal relationship, including immediate relationships and long-term relationships. We’ve been working on this in a variety of ways. For example, we’ve found that automatic homophobic attitudes are greater after an interaction with an ostensibly gay than straight experimenter but only for participants who say they have no gay friends. In another line of experiments, we’ve found that unconscious threats to religious experience reduce explicit religious commitment, but only for participants who believe that they do not share their religious experience with their fathers. For participants who do perceive their religious experience to be shared, the unconscious threat is met with increased religious commitment. In yet another line of experiments, we’ve found that although people will become more anti-black when they’ve been included versus excluded in a game played with ostensible racists, the effect reverses when participants have been experimentally induced to be extra motivated to engage with the racists. We’ve found analogous effects on self-judgment as a function of the ostensible gender traditionality of people who include versus exclude participants.
AS: What do you think might be the limits of these effects? How stable are they? What factors might amplify or mitigate these effects (e.g. duration and consistency of exposure to the tuning group)?
CH: Very interesting questions we’ve not yet explored systematically. According to shared reality theory, social engagement (e.g., affiliative motivation) elicits shared reality (e.g., social tuning). Our research shows that such effects of an immediate relationship are moderated by the relation between that shared reality and potentially competing shared realities held in chronic or long-term relationships. But we haven’t attempted to study what makes some relationships more or less “strong” vis-à-vis shared reality. There would be a variety of ways to model this. My preference—that is, until it proves untenable!—would be that the strength of a given attitude would be determined by some simple function of (a) the number of relationships in which the attitude is shared, (b) the stability of the relationships involved, and (c) the salience of those relationships. For example, sharing reality in a new relationship would be inhibited to the degree that that shared reality is incompatible with existing relationships and to the extent that the existing relationships are stable and to the extent that those relationships are cognitively salient. As for the duration of social tuning effects, evidence across social psychology suggests to me that they are unlikely to be very stable. People are very adaptable to changing social circumstances—from situation to situation, relationship to relationship, and even within situations and particular relationships as they evolve.
AS: I think it’s safe to say many of us assume that ideology is something that we develop rationally. What implications would you say your research has on this idea?
CH: Good questions. I don’t think ideology is rational in the sense that for most people it is logically coherent. Nor do I believe that ideology is rational in the sense that it primarily a product of deep or broad conscious thinking. I do believe ideological thinking is rational in the sense that it is adaptive for humans in evolutionary senses. That said, I do not think research I’ve personally been involved in bears terribly strongly on these questions. To show that unconscious processes influence ideology does not preclude ideology from operating consciously as well. To show that ideology is somewhat malleable is not to show that it is either illogical or evolutionarily adaptive. Those would be interesting avenues to pursue, however.
AS: What purpose does tuning serve in this context? Do you see it as having a positive or a negative impact?
CH: We’ve identified some of the functions of social tuning in the research discussed above. Whether it’s positive or negative depends on who is tuning to whom on what dimension to what effect for whom! Like any other aspect of human psychology, it’s both positive and negative. One of the burdens of the scientist is to identify as clearly as possible the who-what-when-why of it.
AS: What research do you have planned for the future?
CH: One thing I’m very interested in is extending research we’ve done suggesting that religious experience is animated by shared reality processes to cases in which religion operates ideologically.
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Curtis D. Hardin, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. His research focuses on the interpersonal foundations of cognition, including the self-concept, social identification, and prejudice. He recently authored an article with John Jost and Alison Ledgerwood discussing the relational basis of ideological beliefs (available in PDF here).
The dominant view of ideology is that it is something that individuals consciously, rationally form. In this mold, ideology is something pure that exists for its own reasons. It is not a means to an end, unless that end is implementation of policy that reflects the most accurate evaluation of the world around us. It does not, or at least should not, change based on different situations. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that unconscious, automatic processes and social psychological factors are connected to ideology.
One theoretical perspective that sheds light on this connection is shared reality theory. Shared reality theory proposes the idea that particular cognitions are founded on and regulated by particular interpersonal relationships, and that particular cognitions in turn regulate interpersonal relationship dynamics. In other words, there is evidence that our associations with others might have a meaningful impact on our internal thought processes and vice-versa. Our social interactions may in fact serve a crucial psychological function by creating a common (or shared) view of reality that lends a sense of objectivity to otherwise transitory and subjective individual experience. One theoretical means through which we establish shared reality is “social tuning,” through which we bring relationship-relevant attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors into harmony with those of others with whom we either wish to be close or must be close. Ideology is particularly implicated in these processes, both due to its salience and because ideologies can function as “prepackaged” sets of beliefs that are useful for establishing where we stand in relation to others and their perspectives.
While shared reality theory and the possibility that people might actually “tune” their beliefs based on their relationships does not mean that ideology is arbitrary, it does undermine traditional dispositionist assumptions about the centrality of the individual as a rational decision-maker. Our responses to situations that implicate our religious or political views involve automatic processes that are permeable and susceptible to the influence of those around us. Our level of commitment to a given idea can vary depending on how we are experimentally primed. Rather than occupying a consecrated position above other opinions, trends, and inclinations, it is possible that ideology can be as unconsciously driven and impacted by situational pressures as preferences that are given considerably less weight. The full impact of these phenomena is likely to become clearer as social psychologists continue to explore our need for shared reality with others and its relationship with our view of the world around us.
At the 2007 Project on Law and Mind Sciences Conference, Tom Tyler’s presentation was titled “Strategies of Social Control: Motivating Rule Adherence in Organizational Settigings.” Here is the abstract for his talk.
Recent examples of abuse of authority have occurred in two types of organizational settings: corporations and the armed forces. What strategies can be used to bring behavior in such settings into line with rules and policies about appropriate conduct? Dr. Tyler will talk about the value of self-regulatory approaches, examining whether they work and how to make them effective. He will illustrate his arguments using data collected in two contexts: in a multinational corporate bank and among agents of social control (e.g., police officers, federal agents, and infantry soldiers).
Below you can watch a video of Tyler’s fascinating presentation (in 3 roughly 9-minute videos).
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To watch similar videos, visit the video libraries on the Project on Law and Mind Sciences website (here).
For information on the Third PLMS conference (scheduled for March 7, 2009), click here.
This post was originally published on January 22, 2007.
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Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.
To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.
Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.
King’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”
Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”
“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
In describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”
In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”
In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”
And King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:
“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”
King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:
“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”
So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.
Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person's] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
President Bush’s farewell speech, like most (though not all) of his speeches, was full of dispositionism and largely devoid of situationist insight.
His final remarks were apparently intended to remind and assure us that “we” are dispositionally different from “them” and that our country and its people have an essential character (good) while other countries or individuals within certain other countries have a very different disposition (evil). Here are some excerpts.
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America is promoting human liberty, human rights, and human dignity. We are standing with dissidents and young democracies, providing AIDS medicine to bring dying patients back to life, and sparing mothers and babies from malaria. And this great republic born alone in liberty is leading the world toward a new age when freedom belongs to all nations.
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As we address these challenges — and others we cannot foresee tonight — America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense and to advance the cause of peace.
. . . . America is a young country, full of vitality, constantly growing and renewing itself. And even in the toughest times, we lift our eyes to the broad horizon ahead.
I have confidence in the promise of America because I know the character of our people. This is a nation that inspires immigrants to risk everything for the dream of freedom. This is a nation where citizens show calm in times of danger and compassion in the face of suffering. We see examples of America’s character all around us. . . .
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In citizens like these, we see the best of our country — resilient and hopeful, caring and strong. These virtues give me an unshakable faith in America. We have faced danger and trial, and there is more ahead. But with the courage of our people and confidence in our ideals, this great nation will never tire . . . never falter . . . and never fail.
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In September of 2003, when President Bush addressed the United Nations General Assembly to justify the preemptive war in Iraq, his tone was similarly dispositionist.
Events during the past two years have set before us the clearest of divides: between those who seek order, and those who spread chaos; between those who work for peaceful change, and those who adopt the methods of gangsters; between those who honor the rights of man, and those who deliberately take the lives of men and women and children without mercy or shame. Between these alternatives there is no neutral ground.
If “moral clarity” requires insisting that there are just two forces — good and evil — and that a person or group or country is either one or the other, then I’m against it. As many others have argued, one need not condone terrorism to attempt to understand the circumstances that would lead to terrorism; and, as far as policy goes, to attribute behavior solely to the person and not at all to the situation may be to treat the symptom and not the disease. Moral clarity and the dispositionism behind it may simplify decision making, but, as we’ve witnessed, they do not necessarily lead to good or moral decisions.
President Bush seemed eager in his farewell remarks to downplay the consequences of his decisions and, instead, to remind us that he acted with the best of intentions — that, in other words, his disposition was good. At one point he admitted that “[t]here are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right.” Again, his focus is on disposition.
To fellow dispositionists, the message struck a chord. Bill O’Reilly, for instance, had this reaction:
[President Bush] had the best interest of the folks at heart. President Bush is a patriot. He tried to do his best. I’m glad he gave a speech tonight. We wish President Bush the best. He’s a patriot, a good man and I hope he continues to contribute to the country.
Eric Bolling, also from FOX, echoed that theme, writing: “Like him or not, [President Bush] has always done what he felt was best for us all.”
As did Laura Ingraham (FOX News Contributor): “This man is a patriot. He’s a good man and he wanted the best for the country.”
Syndicated Columnist Cal Thomas went even further, praising the President as a “good and decent man,” and then attacking the disposition of those who disapprove of Bush’s performance (that is, most Americans). According to Thomas:
Democrats read the polls and their primary objective is power. As Bush’s approval numbers started to slip, Democrats ratcheted up their opposition and Bush, a non-ideological president, was unable to counter their bile with his own sense of goodness.
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Part of the problem with the Bush presidency was not him, but us. We don’t like inconvenience, war, or a bad economy. And when we were touched by each of these, we blamed the president for not restoring us quickly to our pursuit of pleasure and material things. Most television shows do not last as long as the Bush presidency and that’s the other part of the problem. We project more on our presidents than they are able to give. Yet they don’t want to tell us that only we can make our lives better . . . .
I suspect that those who doubt the good intentions of President Bush are few and far between. In other words, only a relative handful of Americans are claiming that Bush is an evil president. Such “moral clarity” is lacking — as well it should be. Good intentions may be desirable, but they are by no means sufficient to make a person a good president.
A situationist perspective does not focus on intentions. As Situationist contributor Mahzarin Banaji has argued, our moral obligation is more demanding than that: “if we haven’t exhausted every opportunity to know whether what we are doing is right, it will be no excuse for us to say that we meant well.”
Ultimately, the public’s lack of confidence in President Bush is not based on a sense that he intended to leave the planet in worse shape than he found it, but that he did so out of ignorance and arrogance and did not “exhaust every opportunity to know whether what [he was] doing [was] right.”
But one need not be a situationist to believe that the intentions of policymakers are not the sole measuring stick for the success of the policymakers. At the conclusion of his pre-war speech to the U.N. General Assembly, President Bush himself admonished: “Our good intentions will be credited only if we achieve good outcomes.”
Considering where we have come since that speech, it is hard to see how one can say we have “achieve[d] good outcomes.”
Here is an excellent interview of Situationist contributor John Jost by an intern from the Breakthrough Institute.
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Why is the study of political psychology important?
At its best, political psychology has the potential to improve, on the basis of reason and evidence, our political institutions and public policies so that they are more congruent with what we know about human behavior. Social and political psychologists have, over the decades, offered sophisticated analyses and practical interventions with regard to stereotyping, prejudice, authoritarianism, sexism, aggression, nationalism, terrorism, war, and conflict resolution. [See Political Psychology book here.]
You conclude that fear motivates conservatism, but does this mean progressives should avoid fear-based appeals entirely? What about when dealing with genuinely scary things like terrorism and global warming?
For decades social psychologists have known that fear-based appeals in and of themselves are unhelpful and counterproductive, because they lead people either to deny problems that are too painful to face or to simply feel helpless and incapacitated. I think that we see both of these responses to the threat of global warming all the time. So, if you use a fear-based appeal you must simultaneously provide people with a clear, constructive solution to the problem.
In general, conservatives are much better than progressives at doing that, maybe because progressives tend to get bogged down in a complex, overly nuanced analysis of the problem. “We’ll kill all the terrorists,” may be an unrealistic goal (even setting aside the question of whether it’s a desirable goal), but it does assuage the fear, at least temporarily, in clear and unambiguous terms. Even with regard to global warming, conservatives (when they admit the problem) state simply that, “The market will fix it.” That’s simple and makes people feel better in the short run, even if it turns out to be false. Progressives who use fear-based appeals need to get better at communicating a clear (and reassuring) solution whenever the threat is made salient. Otherwise, I think that it will backfire.
What are some examples of the ways progressives have dealt with fear effectively?
I think that in the U.S. context, the best historical example is probably Franklin D. Roosevelt, who famously declared in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” This statement reframes the whole question of what the real threat is, highlighting the fact that fear can be a truly destructive political force, and that it can erode democratic systems from within, as Roosevelt was about to see with respect to Europe.
But Roosevelt did not stop at the level of rhetoric. He proceeded to roll out dozens of specific social and economic programs that were clearly designed to address the economic fears of the citizenry. For the most part he presented these solutions in clear, confident, certain terms. The solutions he proposed were unabashedly liberal, and he explained why they were good solutions for the problems that faced the nation. In other words, he promised to solve the problems and, in many ways, he did.
What kind of response does your work get from conservatives?
Conservatives are typically more bothered by oversimplified (mis)representations that sometimes spread through the media (especially the blogosphere), than by the actual details of our research. Once they learn about it, conservatives are prone to concede that there are personality and/or cognitive style differences between liberals and conservatives. There is obviously a difference between saying that conservatives score higher (on average) than liberals on personal needs for order or structure and saying that conservatives are stupid or crazy, but some people can’t (or, more likely, don’t want to) grasp the difference.
There are several ironies concerning the most hostile responses, though. Some people send hate mail that tends to confirm the worst, most authoritarian picture one could have of extreme conservatives. They are hardly helping their cause, it seems to me. Other negative responses in the blogosphere run the gamut from “ho hum,” “this is obvious,” and “we already knew this” to “this is outrageous” and “what bullshit.” Well, it can’t be both trivially true and spectacularly false. We need to conduct research in psychology because everyone thinks they know what really drives their own behavior (and that of others) and also because nearly everything about psychology sounds obvious once you know it to be true.
One might conclude from your study that conservatism is almost an aberrant behavior — a coping mechanism of sorts. Was this your intention?
No, I think that comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of psychology as a discipline; people assume that if psychologists are studying it, then it must be pathological in some way. In fact the opposite is probably closer to the truth in this case. Conservatism is intuitive, ordinary, commonplace, and probably has natural psychological advantages over liberalism. It makes a great deal of sense that when people feel threatened they would stick to what is familiar and known, that is, the status quo. All of us, even progressives, want to feel good about most of the customs, traditions, and institutions that surround us, and it can be a painful, disillusioning process when we feel disappointed in our country, its leaders, and its institutions.
To use one of the terms that is central to our research program, I think that everyone is motivated—at least to some degree—to engage in “system justification.” In this respect, I think that liberals and progressives are probably at a disadvantage. The notion that we should tolerate and respect people who are different from us and that we should offer equal protection even to those who reject or flout traditional norms is somewhat counterintuitive, in a psychological sense. In the context of human history as a whole, this liberal, tolerant, open-minded, egalitarian view is newer and far more of an “aberration.” As a philosophical belief system or a cultural innovation, it could be considered an accomplishment of our species, insofar as it was unlikely to catch on given our evolutionary background.
You posit that “resistance to change” and “acceptance of inequality” are the core dimensions of conservative thought. What are the core dimensions of liberal and progressive thought?
Actually, what we say is that at the core of the left-right (or liberal-conservative) distinction there are two basic values or polar orientations: (1) advocating vs. resisting social change, and (2) rejecting vs. accepting social and economic inequality. These two aspects tend to be correlated because traditional social arrangements were hierarchical and authority-based, and over the last several centuries most of the challenges to the status quo have been in the direction of increased rather than decreased egalitarianism. Thus, as a general rule, leftists are more in favor of social change and egalitarianism (with respect to outcomes as well as opportunities), whereas rightists are more in favor of tradition and more supportive of hierarchical social systems.
What do you think are the best practical applications of your research?
One of my former doctoral students, Hulda Thorisdottir, conducted what is probably the best applied test of our ideas in her dissertation work. She conducted several experiments in which she demonstrated that threatening stimuli (such as frightening movie clips) elicit a temporary increase in closed-mindedness (measured with a subset of items from the “need for cognitive closure” scale) and that increased closed-mindedness was associated with an affinity for conservative policies and opinions. She also showed that threat can increase approval of liberal policies, but only when those policies are communicated using certainty-oriented language. That is, liberal opinions must be offered as confident, unambiguously good solutions that will definitely solve the basic problem. Otherwise, they are dismissed under conditions of threat.
What do you think of the current economic panic in this country? Alan Greenspan recently observed that the current economic mess is “the most wrenching” since World War II; Fortune magazine’s Allan Sloan, who’s been covering the business of business for decades says, “I’m more nervous about the world financial system than I’ve ever been in 40 years.”
Yes, I do think that there are serious economic concerns looming, and the yawning gap between rich and poor has created an opportunity for the country to make an economic left turn. The Democratic candidate for president should make a note to himself (or herself), just as Bill Clinton did in 1992, that says, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But I do not think that panic helps progressives, as I said before, because fear inhibits the desire to experiment with bold, new initiatives, and that is the essence of progressive thinking. Progressives in the 21st century need to be as bold and creative as their predecessors in the last century who made the U.S. a moral leader on the world stage and not just a military and industrial leader. More than ever, progressives need to offer clear, courageous, and scientifically compelling solutions to the many problems that confront us. The solutions they propose should be realistic and congruent with what we know about the causes of human behavior; that is, they should be informed by political psychology.
This post was first published on November 21, 2007.
Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.
But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.
Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):
Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.
Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.
Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.
“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”
Existing levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.
“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”
The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.
Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.
A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:
your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”
Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”
If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?
A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”
That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.
[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?
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No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.
If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.
In this irreverent and illuminating book, acclaimed writer and scientist Leonard Mlodinow shows us how randomness, change, and probability reveal a tremendous amount about our daily lives, and how we misunderstand the significance of everything from a casual conversation to a major financial setback. As a result, successes and failures in life are often attributed to clear and obvious cases, when in actuality they are more profoundly influenced by chance.
The book and the review are worth checking out, but we found Smith’s discussion of the possible implications of Mlodnow’s insight worth sharing below.
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Mlodinow’s telling central premise is that our desire for control leaves us in denial about how important randomness is. Intuitively, we prefer to construct a linear narrative that makes events seem inevitable. Pearl Harbour and 9/11 were easy causal patterns to trace with hindsight, but rather less so beforehand. Individual success, too, is a lottery: JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected by several publishers, Bruce Willis was a jobbing actor until he got a lucky break and even Bill Gates would have been ‘just another software entrepreneur’ but for a series of accidents. For every Rowling, Willis or Gates, how many equally talented people quit too soon because their coin hasn’t yet come up heads? Perseverance, it seems, is all.
Unfortunately, Mlodinow fails to develop this in what should have been his most provocative chapter. If the connection between actions and results is not as direct as we like to believe, what does that mean politically for the class system, social mobility and the self-justification of society’s elite? Sixties social psychologist Melvin Lerner, realising that ‘few people would engage in extended activity if they believed that there were a random connection between what they did and the rewards they received’, concluded that ‘for the sake of their own sanity’ people overestimate the degree to which ability can be inferred from success.
Would people in the US still fervently believe in the American Dream if they understood that hard work alone may not be enough? . . . .
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To watch a 42-minute video of Mlodinow discussing his book, click on the video below.