GOP Anxiety: How Republicans work with worry

wall

Picture from Slate

We’ve all heard it. Immigrants will undermine the American way of life. Muslims will institute Sharia law and overtake our legal system. Gun control will lead to an imbalance of firearms between law-abiding citizens and criminals. Conservative talking points have long appealed to America’s anxieties. Our anxiety that the country we love will change into something we no longer recognize. Our anxiety that people who aren’t like us are out to hurt us. And our anxiety that those who aim to hurt us may end up with the upper hand.

Anxiety is worry without reason, but it feels all too real. And it motivates us to alleviate our unease, often by avoiding others we find threatening. Appealing to people’s anxieties, as baseless as they may be, is an extremely effective way to encourage social isolation. Anxiety about other groups feeds xenophobia and prejudice, but it also moves people into protection mode, leading to the social exclusion of outgroups.1 Consider conservatives’ protectionist response to the Ebola crisis. When anxiety about disease increased, calls to close our borders rose as well.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to use appeals involving moral outrage. Immigration enforcement is tearing families apart. A religion that is 99.9% peaceful is being grossly mischaracterized by zealots. We are playing fast and loose with our environment and the future of our children. While emotional appeals are cheap on all fronts, anger is the only approach-oriented negative emotion.2 Sadness, fear and anxiety all make you want to lay in your bed alone and cower; anger has you primed for a fight. In this way, anger appeals are motivating, but they aren’t isolating. This is in keeping with the globalist leanings of liberals. They are outraged about various problems, and they want to engage with others to solve them. It makes sense why liberals are known as progressive policy-makers, because anger creates forward momentum. But what happens when liberals are anxious, not outraged?

In their book Anxious Politics, Albertson and Gadarian conduct an experiment to investigate who the public trusts when anxieties are high.3 They found that people react differently to internal threats where the US government is at least somewhat accountable for outcomes than they do to external threats, where the government has no control over the threat.3 In order to test this concept, they conducted two experiments, one about swine flu, which was an external public health threat, and one about illegal immigration, which was an internal threat that the government could control.3 They found that anxiety over swine flu increased trust in experts like personal doctors, as well as in government agencies, like the CDC, relative to people who were not anxious about swine flu.3 Interestingly, though, it does not appear to influence trust in partisan actors like the Surgeon General as much as non-partisan actors, like the FDA.3 But for participants who were made to feel anxious about illegal immigrants, liberals and conservatives alike increased trust in republican partisans.3 It wasn’t that liberals endorsed republicans over their own partisan actors, but compared to controls, anxious liberals were more trusting of republican politicians to make decisions related to immigration.

Simply appealing to people’s anxieties can change the way they feel about a situation, their opinions about the policy that should be made in response to it and the manner in which they treat the people involved. Republicans have made a political killing playing on these anxieties. So much so that the party that offered amnesty to illegal immigrants in the ‘80s has become the same party that insists we need a wall to keep illegal immigrants out. If liberals aren’t careful, more and more democratic voters will warm up to republican talking points. And it’s awfully hard to be outraged about what’s happening when you are huddled under your covers. In fact, the GOP is counting on it.

 

  1. Baumeister, R. F., & Tice, D. M. (1990). Point-counterpoints: Anxiety and social exclusion. Journal of social and clinical Psychology9(2), 165-195.
  2. Carver, C. S., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2009). Anger is an approach-related affect: evidence and implications. Psychological bulletin135(2), 183.
  3. Albertson, B., & Gadarian, S. K. (2015). Anxious politics: Democratic citizenship in a threatening world. Cambridge University Press.
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This is us: Why White distancing from undesired Whites won’t help

In the aftermath of Charlottesville and other public displays of hate, many people are crying out that the hate must stop. This is not us! This is not the U.S. I love! People are crying and tweeting, most notably Lady Gaga.

I’m not picking on Lady Gaga, specifically, but she sure represents the archetypal well-intentioned white person, even following up that tweet with a question posed to people of color asking how white people can be better and more supportive (a full explanation of why this is misguided and burdensome are for another post), but I digress.

Mostly, this is shouted by well-intentioned white people. I appreciate the sentiment. Most don’t want this to be us. But the truth is that this hate and violence ARE us and have been from our country’s very beginnings, and they take many many forms (this article has some great examples of more subtle forms like redlining). This hate and violence and, of course, racism are regularly reinvented in new forms: school to prison pipeline, police shootings of black men, voter ID laws, etc. I could go on. Some of these are less explicitly violent than others, but the general sentiment is there with the same result—holding up white people while oppressing people of color.

You see, this is us. And I’m not the first white person to talk about it—see here or here, just for starters. I don’t want to be the last one to talk about it, either. This is America. But many (most, I’d argue) of us white people don’t have to think or even learn about this version of America or haven’t had to in recent history. We preach “colorblindness” (detrimental in its own right because of its implied color = bad—check out what I mean here) and brush under the rug all those nasty “outliers” of inequity, hatred, prejudice, and white supremacy. Or we shift the blame to the victim (see numerous examples about Emmett Till, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin here). We hold up Obama as a shield of progress, blocking out all other evidence that indicates the contrary.

Million March NYC

From Google Image

And finally, we distance ourselves from the “bad white people:” the KKK, Nazis, other white nationalists. White people are especially good at this one, this distancing not-me-I’m a good-white-person. I wouldn’t do/say/express that, etc. I’m guilty of doing this myself. This distancing is a well-documented phenomenon with research suggesting that members of an in-group (for example, white people) do this most often when they don’t want to be associated with bad outcomes or behavior of someone else in the in-group (1) (2). In other words, “good” white people are quick to point out or condemn the actions of “bad” white people. We becomes they.

This is understandable. Who wants to be associated with explicitly racist people? It’s also tricky. As white people, we all should be explicitly and LOUDLY condemning white supremacy in all its forms, even though we benefit from its more covert forms every single day. The difference is that we must publicly condemn and then take action. That means many things and offers many options for action. Some of the more subtle ways of standing against white supremacy include not saying “yes, but…” when hearing accounts of racism by people of color or “there was fault on many sides” in reference to Charlottesville or “I’m shocked that this could happen.” This last example is a punch in the gut to many people of color who are not shocked because they have not had the luxury of being protected from such hatred until now, like most white people.

Furthermore, we must not condemn merely for the purpose of making ourselves look better or more woke. The consequences of doing so are not acceptable. Because those “bad white people” are left unaccountable. And according to former neo-nazis, ignoring people with hateful ideologies like the KKK does not effectively reduce their power or discourage them. And also, because we are like those bad white people in many ways, and they are like us.

From Google Image

Take away the torches (and the MAGA hat), and these are preppy “regular” white guys you’d see around town

White people, we gotta grab our people. They’re ours whether we want them or not. People of color have been saying this for decades and decades—I’m not proposing an original idea, nor am I the first white person to proclaim this, but maybe my white skin will convince someone else with white skin to listen.

I’m not suggesting you face an armed Nazi at a protest (though if that’s your thing, rock on), but do speak up against coded language that’s racist and hateful. Here are some tools specific to combating harmful narratives of Charlottesville I’ve found to be helpful. Reading Kate Schatz’s essay “What I Mean” in Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times is another great step in learning about white people’s complicity in perpetuating systemic racism even when you’re not “actively” racist. And also, listen listen listen to people of color. Trust them. Believe them. They’ve been telling us what America is, but we’re not listening. The ability to not listen is a privilege in itself.

This is us. Only by owning it, by owning our fellow white people and holding them accountable can we be and do better.


(1) Cialdini, R. B., et al. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 366-375.

(2) Boen, F., et al. (2002). Politics and basking-in-reflected-glory: A field study in Flanders. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 24, 205-214.

Public Prejudice: The alt-right doesn’t think you’re white

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Image from Quartz

I’m a quarter Russian. That quarter Russian is also Jewish, but it was handed down by my maternal grandfather. According to how Judaism is passed down, that makes me not Jewish. Well…to Jewish people. I was absolutely Jewish enough for Hitler. I’m what Hitler would have called a mixed-blood, or a mischling, someone who has both Aryan and Jewish ancestry. So even though I am not Jewish, neither of my parents are Jewish, and I’ve never even so much as been invited to a Bar Mitzvah or set foot in a synagogue, in Hitler’s Germany, I’m a Jew.

As we watched neo-nazis and the KKK marching in Charlottesville earlier this month, they weren’t chanting about the removal of statues or the snowflake-y nature of our current society, but they were chanting about Jews. It isn’t that surprising. We know that hate crimes against Jewish people have skyrocketed since Trump’s election. Someone even drew a swastika on a fence here in Durham North Carolina, a place that went almost 80% to Hillary Clinton. Racism, prejudice and discrimination have always been here. Trump didn’t invent them, even if he doesn’t do much to discourage them.

But something has shifted within me since Trump’s election. When I see these people marching with their torches, yelling about how they won’t be replaced by Jews, forehead veins popping with anger, I now feel like they are talking about me. And that’s good in a way. Because research shows that people who are primed to think about the differences between their group and another group actually increase their outgroup derogation.1 Or, in other words, we are more likely to look down on outgroups when we think of them as distinctly different from us. Thinking of ourselves as part of those groups decreases prejudice.

The way that we identify has a lot to do with how much we stand up for causes. Black people are the most active members of Black Lives Matter, because they are the direct targets of the current racial injustices in the legal system. The most visible LGBTQ activists have traditionally identified as LGBTQ themselves. Women are the most involved in securing access to women’s healthcare services, because they are the ones most in need of those healthcare services. It isn’t shocking or surprising that we don’t invest as much in outgroups as we do in our ingroups. Ask your next door neighbor if they’d rather feed their kids or yours given the choice.

Identity is a tricky thing. We often engage in self-presentation efforts, for instance, not wearing your KKK robes to work so your coworkers don’t hate you.2 So the impressions that you receive from someone may not be indicative of the way they truly feel. It may be a reflection of what they want you to see. This is something that the “alt-right” has embraced. When they held the march on Charlottesville, they didn’t look like a group of racist rednecks from the trailer park. They looked neat, well-groomed and well-dressed. That kind of self-presentation is like magic. They want you looking at the right hand so you don’t know what the left hand is doing. Sterilizing a message of hate with polo shirts doesn’t make it any less hateful.

Beyond self-presentation, self-concepts may or may not integrate all parts of one’s identity. That is unfortunate, as our self-concepts help to regulate our behavior.3 When we identify information as self-relevant, it is more likely to motivate us to act.3 Even though I am undoubtedly Jewish enough to be considered Jewish by the “blood and soil” crowd, I had never integrated that piece of my identity into my self-concept. I check the box for white on demographics questions, I am treated as white by people out in the world (i.e. I have white privilege) and when I buy face makeup, I buy one of the 3 lightest shades offered. Ostensibly, I am white. But to neo-nazis and the KKK, I’m not just not white, I’m subhuman. In fact, if you are not a protestant male of pure Aryan descent, the “alt-right” probably thinks you’re subhuman too.

Identity is pretty stable after a point. I won’t wake up tomorrow and decide that my morals and values have totally shifted and no longer recognize myself. But we can grow and change, integrating new ideas and roles into our self-concepts. The concept of identity integration suggests that perceiving an increase in compatibility between two seemingly disparate identities can increase performance on a variety of tasks.4 If we can integrate more parts of our identities, and see them as compatible with one another, we may be able to increase the amount of compassion and empathy we show to the people of color in our community. After all, that community is one of our ingroups.

In the wake of Charlottesville, white Americans have a choice. We hear the “alt-right” talking about immigrants, Jews, people of color and Catholics, and we can decide what we do with that information. We can say we are not part of those groups, and that we abhor white supremacy, but acknowledge it doesn’t really affect us personally. Or we can reevaluate our identities and realize that most of us are at least partial targets of these hate groups, whether we feel that way or not. To the alt-right, you probably ain’t white.

 

  1. Mummendey, A., Klink, A., & Brown, R. (2001). Nationalism and patriotism: National identification and out‐group rejection. British Journal of Social Psychology40(2), 159-172.
  2. Leary, M. R. (1995). Self-presentation: Impression management and interpersonal behavior. Brown & Benchmark Publishers.
  3. Markus, H., & Wurf, E. (1987). The dynamic self-concept: A social psychological perspective. Annual review of psychology38(1), 299-337.
  4. Rodriguez, E. M., & Ouellette, S. C. (2000). Gay and Lesbian Christians: Homosexual and Religious Identity Integration in the Members and Participants of a Gay‐Positive Church. Journal for the Scientific Study of religion39(3), 333-347.

Magnifying the message: A change for SocialPsyQ

We did it again. Stopped posting on SocialPsyQ and left our dear readers in the lurch. We’d like to say it was because we have been passing major educational and career milestones (which we have been; Mallory is officially ABD and Jen got a fancy new job), but in reality, we’ve been a bit stumped since November. It was never our intention to make SocialPsyQ a political blog. Our goal has always been to highlight how social psychology affects our real lives, and to apply the discipline we love outside of the classroom. We recognize that people of all political stripes are interested in such exercises, and we aim to present psychological findings with as little personal bias as possible. But since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president by calling most Mexican immigrants racists, drug smugglers and criminals, SocialPsyQ’s content has taken on a decidedly more political bent.

Trump2

Picture from CBS News

To be honest, it’s been difficult to write blog entries about resisting ad messages in the face of the constant stream of negative news from the White House. It feels hollow and disingenuous to write about cute aggression or how ovulating strippers make more money than menstruating ones when one tweet from our president could bring us closer to nuclear war. And it feels irresponsible and cowardly to not use this platform to shed light on the incredibly serious issues plaguing our time, as opposed to persuasion tactics or the science of pregnancy cravings.

 

As white women, we recognize the privilege we have to remove ourselves from the struggles of Americans of color. Though we have strived to write about racial injustice quite a bit, we both know that we could and should be doing more to speak out against racism and white supremacy, both in our personal lives and at SocialPsyQ. After seeing a torch wielding mob of angry white nationalists and neo-Nazis holding a town hostage to their racist ideals this past weekend—just the latest and most brazen assault on people of color and Jewish people—we are determined to use SocialPsyQ to help educate our fellow citizens about the underlying motivations, implicit biases, stereotypes and prejudices, societal factors and learning that influence such behavior.

Vigil

Charlottesville vigil picture from NPR

So, we’re still the SocialPsyQ you know and love. We’re still going to be here using social psychology as a lens to look at current events, social trends and personal attitudes. We’re just going to focus on the most salient events, trends and attitudes. Unfortunately, in the past year, that has lent itself to an increasing focus on the Trump administration and the Alt-Right. As progressives, we are motivated to examine multiple sides of an issue, to recognize the gray in between the black and white, and to refrain from making stereotypes about entire groups. As social psychologists, we know that human behavior is complex, that groups often elicit extremism and that personal motivation is often ambiguous. We intend to incorporate all of these perspectives as we lovingly, but rigorously, explore the social psychology behind the turbulent times we live in.

 

Thanks for reading,

Mallory and Jen

“Psychologist Wages War against Media with this Simple Trick!” Different Ways to Approach Fake News

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Guest author Michael Barger

While fake news stories are not necessarily a new phenomenon, we have seen a rise in dubious articles in the past few months due to recent political events. With the rise of social media, it is easier than ever for readers to skim headlines and click the “share” button without much thought. Our newsfeeds are overflowing with rumors and even straight-up lies (or “alternative facts”, if you prefer). With an excess of click-bait and the tidal wave of emotions that accompany our partisan media consumption, it is difficult to recognize how we process the information presented to us. Let’s take some time to consider the different ways people think about and interpret the news as it’s presented.

Psychologists and philosophers have studied how people determine the truth for quite a while. It’s a broad field with an off-putting name: epistemology. It examines ideas about what knowledge is, where (or who) it comes from, and how it comes to be1,2,3. People have many ways of figuring out what is true, and some strategies come with serious flaws. Let’s start with a familiar scenario to explore how people determine facts: Santa Claus.

As children, a lot of us were told by the adults around us that a big, bearded man in a red suit would come down our chimneys with toys every Christmas. At age 4, this sounded like a legitimate story because children take pretty much everything at face value. This is called a realist approach: the information you receive is reality. However, as children grow older, the holes in this reality become more obvious. He visits how many houses in one night? He has a team of flying reindeer? Why doesn’t he visit my Muslim friend even though she’s way better behaved than I am? Children start to realize the world is not such a simple place. They learn to deal with these complexities in one of two different ways. They can become dogmatists or they can become skeptics.

A dogmatist knows that the facts don’t add up, but decides to leave it up to the authority figures to decide what is or is not fact. I know this “Santa Claus” business seems sketchy, but if Mom said to leave out the milk and cookies, it must be real, right? Unfortunately, experts don’t have the correct answer 100% of the time, or may have other motivations for clouding the truth (see Mallory’s recent post on obedience). Journalists are certainly one type of expert.

When approaching news articles, the dogmatic approach produces an abundance of “truths” that simply can’t all be true. As we have seen, there are many news sources available to consumers in the internet age. Here, confirmation bias rears its ugly head again (see Mallory’s post on confirmation bias). People are less likely to think sources are biased if they agree with what the source is saying4. This can affect anyone (whether Pelosi quotes a parody Twitter accounts of Michael Flynn or Trump cites tabloid conspiracies about Ted Cruz’s father).

A skeptic, on the other hand, rejects the idea that authorities know anything at all. Santa Claus is clearly a lie! I can’t let my friends or younger siblings fall for this story! Come to think of it, Mom and Dad are pretty dumb for believing in Santa Claus. There is no nuance – Santa is a lie and everyone who propagated that lie cannot be trusted.

At first glance, this may seem like a better defense against fake news. We’re often told to be “skeptical” when we read something outrageous. Santa is too good to be true! However, a skeptic may not be able to identify when a source has actual, valid information. For example, a skeptic could see dozens of reports pointing to the importance of vaccines or the trends of climate change and outright reject them. With a preponderance of evidence, it is inappropriate to maintain a skeptical approach. Experts are experts for a reason; they spend a lot of time learning about and reporting on their topics. In fact, research has found that people who have too little of a belief in experts as sources of knowledge have a harder time learning from multiple sources of information5. Overreliance on the skepticism strategy can lead us to saying that all news is “fake news.” This leaves us no closer to understanding what is going on in the world.

In a complex world, dogmatism and skepticism are merely opposing half-measures. While neither approach is inherently wrong, they each have systematic flaws. Fortunately, there is another strategy balanced between the two called rationalism. Instead of taking everything at face value, blindly believing particular sources, or rejecting everything we see or hear in the news, rationalism means that we weigh and evaluate the sources to put together a reasonable (and reasoned) approximation of what is true. This means evaluating the claims being made, the motivations and proclivities of those who report the news, and taking in information from more than one source. No, Santa Claus isn’t an actual person and telling kids about his fictional exploits is technically lying. But he is a real idea that people use to symbolize the charitable and selfless morals of Christmas. In the same way, the majority of news is probably somewhere between poignantly perfect and disgustingly deceptive.

In a reality with pervasive fake news, the rationalist approach can be a useful tool. Yes, it may take us longer to reach the truth than if we relied only on experts or automatically rejected everything in the media as false. Each approach has costs and benefits. I encourage you to actively think about how you are thinking when reading the news. Don’t assume a particular report is true. Be open to the possibility that reports you disagree with could provide some insight into our shared reality. But don’t take my word for it; check my sources, find a few more of your own, and decide for yourself.


Michael is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He studies how students’ beliefs about knowledge and intelligence develop. He is particularly interested in what adults can do to change children’s beliefs. As a developmental psychologist, he often thinks about his own childhood. His dream as a child was to become a published author. Now in academia, he wishes he could tell his younger self that it would have been easier to pursue a career as a professional a cappella singer. 

1Chinn, C. A., Buckland, L. A., & Samarapungavan, A. L. A. (2011). Expanding the dimensions of epistemic cognition: Arguments from philosophy and psychology. Educational Psychologist46, 141-167.

2Greene, J. A., Azevedo, R., & Torney-Purta, J. (2008). Modeling epistemic and ontological cognition: Philosophical perspectives and methodological directions. Educational Psychologist43, 142-160.

3Hofer, B. K., & Pintrich, P. R. (1997). The development of epistemological theories: Beliefs about knowledge and knowing and their relation to learning. Review of Educational Research67, 88-140.

4Vallone, R. P., Ross, L., & Lepper, M. R. (1985). The hostile media phenomenon: biased perception and perceptions of media bias in coverage of the Beirut massacre. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49, 577-585.

5Bråten, I., Strømsø, H. I., & Samuelstuen, M. S. (2008). Are sophisticated students always better? The role of topic-specific personal epistemology in the understanding of multiple expository texts. Contemporary Educational Psychology33, 814-840.

Conformity: Standing up means standing out

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Image of Asch experiment from Simply Psychology

If everyone was jumping off a bridge, would you jump too? Social psychology research suggests you might. Social conformity is a powerful force. So much so that social psychologists generally endorse the idea that people like to stand out, but only in a good way. We want to be recognized for our unique, desirable qualities or achievements, but we don’t want to be caught wearing clothing that has gone out of style, or being ignorant of the latest cultural trends. We want to be seen as individuals, except in ways that would make us seem weird and different and…other. Unsurprisingly, this desire to fit in appears to drive conformity.

asch_conformity

Image from Age of the Sage

In the early 1950s, Solomon Asch conducted his famous conformity experiments. In his experimental paradigm, he had participants complete a line judgment task with several confederates, experimenters posing as naïve participants.1 In each judgment, one line was clearly the match for the comparison line, however, after a few correct judgments, the group of confederates starts to unanimously choose an incorrect answer.1 Even though about a quarter of the subjects still gave correct judgments every time, 76% of the sample was swayed by the incorrect majority at least once, with 27% of participants conforming on 8 to 12 out of 12 trials.1 The group of people who conform most or all of the time is slightly larger than the group that never conforms. Sadly, these holdouts seem to be behavioral outliers. The rest of us feel uncomfortable repeatedly sticking our social neck’s out.

Asch, like many social psychologists of his era, was influenced by the atrocities of World War II, and sought to explain how normal people could subscribe to an extremist movement, and how they could come to be so fearful of standing up to the mounting threat of genocide. The conformity experiments use a simple paradigm of no social importance. It asks participants to make a judgment that should be clear to anyone who can see. When participants are asked to make their own judgments by writing them down, they get the judgments right 100% of the time.1 But the desire to fit in with others is so strong that most people give in at least once when there’s a unanimous, vocal majority.

There are a whole lot of reasons why conformity is bad. One is that groupthink, a state in which groups exhibit certain characteristics in order to achieve consensus at all costs, is partially fostered by a silencing of dissenting opinions.2 And groupthink is pretty famous for leading to bad decision-making, like the choice to launch the Challenger space shuttle against expert advice.3 One person refusing to relent can go a long way to preventing groups from making decisions without considering the full extent of consequences. In the Asch experiments, for instance, having only 1 of the confederates disagree with the group answer dropped participant error rates by over 2/3rds.4 Seeing just one other person stand up to the crowd gives people the courage to do the same.

In a time when there is so much divisive rhetoric about which human beings “belong” in which places, and in which we sometimes bring harm to others in hopes that they will not harm us, conformity is a threat we must remain vigilant against. Whether we are scared to speak up when others move towards solutions that ignore our values, or we are silent while our fellow citizens are targeted, we are contributing to a culture of conformity. Remember that it only takes one person doing to the right thing to make other people do the same. That one person can be you.

  1. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied70(9), 1.
  2. Esser, J. K. (1998). Alive and well after 25 years: A review of groupthink research. Organizational behavior and human decision processes73(2), 116-141.
  3. Esser, J. K., & Lindoerfer, J. S. (1989). Groupthink and the space shuttle Challenger accident: Toward a quantitative case analysis. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making2(3), 167-177.
  4. Asch, S. E. (1955). Opinions and social pressure. Readings about the social animal193, 17-26.

New Scarcity: Losing rights feels worse than gaining them feels good

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Image from NBC

People are naturally loss averse.1,2,3 It feels worse to lose $1,000 than it does to not win $1,000. It feels worse to have your house foreclosed on than to not be able to buy one.  It feels worse to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. So when it comes to civil rights, it isn’t surprising that people are more disturbed by new scarcity than they are by scarcity. Scarcity is so alluring it is one Robert Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion AND one of the most common sales techniques used to sell holiday themed sweater sets on QVC.4 Companies can utilize scarcity in all sorts of ways, from offering limited editions to selling one-of-a-kind products. They can even use new scarcity, by doing things like making products that were once available year-round only available seasonally. This creates an even larger demand than having something be scarce in the first place. Once people have had it and they can’t get it anymore, they want it more than ever.

In the wake of the November 8th election, protestors have gathered in cities all over America. Many are confused about the exact point of the protests. But the threat of new scarcity can go a long way to explaining the way people behave when they get a glimpse of what could be, only to face the threat (or reality) of being pushed back into what was. In my course on consumer psychology, I emphasize the significance of new scarcity through 1990s sitcoms. When older millennials were growing up in the 1990s, there were several mainstream television shows on major networks that featured all African-American casts. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, Sister, Sister…these were shows most people in America watched. They featured black families who were filthy rich, they featured black families who were highly educated, they featured black families with male role models who were police officers and educators.

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Image from Mental Floss

As the 2000s, and now the 2010s, march on, we have seen less and less of this kind of television. Yes, there are more shows available and less people watch the major networks when Netflix and Amazon are churning out some of the most popular shows these days. But at the same time, when we look at the networks, we have seen a return to “diverse” casts like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy composed of at least half white actors, and we have also seen a return to stereotypical portrayals of Black Americans as gang members, rappers and good dancers in shows like Empire, where many of the main characters have served time in jail. It’s new scarcity in action. And it’s crap.*

These days, TV executives doubt the viability of shows with all minority casts, arguing that white viewers don’t want to watch those shows. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None even tackles this issue specifically in an episode entitled Indians on TV. One wonders if these TV execs lived through the ‘90s, or if they witnessed America’s love for Bill Cosby prior to recent revelations about his serious failings as a person, TV dad and Jell-O salesman (how could you, Dr. Huxtable?). There used to be little doubt that Americans would watch a show with an all-Black cast. Now, we wonder if it’s “realistic” to cast African-American actors in all sorts of roles. It’s not a coincidence that the Ghostbusters remake features 3 white scientists and a black MTA worker. It’s a noticeable return to stereotyping African-Americans in the media that has come at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained steam.

I am not arguing in any way, shape or form that the fact that shows like Family Matters are no longer on air is the reason for the activism of the black community. But I am arguing that Black Americans have glimpsed the future many times in America only to lose it to the march of time. In 1870, congress passed the 15th Amendment guaranteeing American citizens of all races the right to vote. In 2016, black voter suppression has made a serious comeback, prompting one judge to say that black voters were being targeted in North Carolina “with almost surgical precision.” In 1994, Carl Winslow tells off some colleagues after they racially profile his son with no evidence in an episode of Family Matters called Good Cop, Bad Cop that highlights racial bias in the police force. In 2016, Terence Crutcher is killed by a police officer in Tulsa after his car breaks down for looking like a “bad dude.” The national conversation has rolled backwards. We have moved from a primetime television show casting a white cop as the villain, to having people say Black Lives Matter is a hate group, and having our President-elect endorse stop and frisk in Black neighborhoods. New scarcity is on the rise.

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Image from Mental Floss

For many Americans, the threat is losing rights they have already gained. LGBT Americans are worried about losing their right to marry, guaranteed in the Obergefell Supreme Court decision, or Trans kids’ right to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender at their public school, guaranteed by Obama’s executive orders. Many women are worried about losing their right to control their bodies and their medical decisions, guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, something Mike Pence wants to see “consigned to the ash heap of history.” Many immigrants are worried about what will happen to family members who were protected as “Dreamers” under the Obama administration. New scarcity is scary, and rightfully so. Losing feels worse in magnitude than gaining feels good. And Americans have proven they won’t remain silent about it.

 

*Empire is an excellent show! As are Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy! I only use these as examples of newer shows that feature significant amounts of black cast members.

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