Eat, drink and be scary: Halloween hijacks social norms

It’s Halloween, and later tonight people all over America and the Western world will celebrate by asking strangers to give them treats, pulling some obnoxious pranks (read: vandalism and theft1) and/or by dressing up as something they are not. And people who don’t participate in these activities (minus the vandalism for most of us) are considered downers who can’t have fun. For many of us, Halloween is fun. Going out into the world wearing an acceptable lie is exhilarating. It’s like makeup on crack. You get to present a totally different face to the world without being branded disingenuous. You are even lauded for your pretending, with compliments and contests for the people who seem the least like themselves. For a social psychologist, it isn’t that surprising that people of all ages love Halloween, long after the candy train dries up. People have public and private selves, and Halloween gives them a chance to let their freak flags fly out in the open.

The normative acceptance of uninhibited behavior on Halloween is one of its most powerful allures. Without using drugs or alcohol, adults have very few chances to express themselves outside of the normal confines of human interaction. While children can just spontaneously pretend to be dinosaurs in the middle of the math lesson, that doesn’t exactly fly in the typical workday. Halloween comes with its own set of norms, like most holidays, called situational norms. People tend to eat similar kinds of foods, perform similar kinds of rituals, go to similar kinds of places and surround themselves with similar kinds of people. Because holidays have their own norms, they supersede the norms that people usually adhere to. While some holidays may institute more chaste norms, like Easter Sunday, some holidays encourage public intoxication and belligerent nationalism, like the Fourth of July. Halloween encourages people to wallow in a slightly darker version of themselves. To express hidden identities and indulge in desires they usually resist.

Even though we usually think of norms as being society wide, any group can institute norms for any period of time. They change over time, they change depending on the group of people you are with and they change depending on whether or not you are alone. I’m talking about eating 25 fun sized Snickers bars while you are waiting for trick or treaters, not living some sort of secret double life. People usually behave differently when they are alone. But on Halloween all bets are off. While most people wouldn’t usually wear their Merry Widow or pajamas out of the house, there are 10 such individuals packing the bar you’re at on Halloween. I know one woman who dubbed her costume “expensive prostitute.” Most people wouldn’t want to act out the role of expensive prostitute while trying to be heard at a work meeting, or while trying to get a loan at the bank, but this lady is going to be selling herself on the streets tonight in a socially sanctioned way.

It’s probably a good thing we have public and private selves. I don’t want to see you at peak weekend, in your sweatpants, with chip crumbs on your chest and the greasy sheen of Netflix reflected off your unwashed forehead. That’s you time! But it’s also good to have time when we get to decompress, and let go of our controlled behavior. Inhibition is one of the three elements of self-control, along with initiation and continuation/maintenance.2 It’s often one of the toughest challenges for us, to inhibit our natural desires to eat the candy, or to stay in bed when we need to get ready for work. It takes self-control to resist these desires, and some theorists believe that we only have a limited store of self-control to resist them with.3 When we use that self-control, we become depleted, which means that we are unable to engage in controlled behavior for a short time while we replenish our stores. This is why we are so much more exhausted when we spend an hour at a networking event, being the best version of ourselves, than we are after spending an evening with friends, where we are relaxed and less worried about adhering to norms.

Halloween is almost like a big self-control break for both adults and children. It gives us the opportunity to eat junk food with impunity, to pay money for cheap thrills, to put graveyard markers on our front lawns and to wear our underwear outside. And in the tightly controlled world that we usually live in, it’s a welcome reprieve to let go for one night. Have a safe and spooky Halloween to all from us here at SocialPsyQ!

 

  1. Diener, E., Fraser, S. C., Beaman, A. L., & Kelem, R. T. (1976). Effects of deindividuation variables on stealing among Halloween trick-or-treaters. Journal of personality and social psychology33(2), 178.
  2. Hoyle, R. H., & Davisson, E. K. (in press). Measurement of self-control by self-report: Considerations and recommendations. In D. de Ridder, M. Adriaanse, & K. Fujita (Eds.), Handbook of self-control in health and well-being. New York: Routledge.
  3. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology74(5), 1252.

For more reading about norms:

Aarts, H., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2003). The silence of the library: environment, situational norm, and social behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology84(1), 18.

Allen, V. L. (1965). Situational factors in conformity. Advances in experimental social psychology2, 133-175.

Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science18(5), 429-434.

Advertisements

Psych in Sum: Low information voter or cognitive miser?

vote.jpg

Image from CNN

With the presidential election less than a month away, the pressure is on for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to pick up as many undecided voters as they can before November 8th. But how do voters decide who they are voting for and what kinds of information do they consider? David Redlawsk sheds some light on the process.

The ideal way to make this important decision is through a thorough information search that considers all attributes of all possible candidates. However, most people don’t do this, because, well, our brains are lazy. Instead, we develop various information search strategies in deciding who to cast a ballot for. Behavioral Decision Theory suggests that people tend to settle for “good enough” choices once they feel like they have acquired enough information about the decision. We are “cognitive misers,” in the way that we don’t expend cognitive energy when we don’t have to. There tend to be two sets of conditions under which people make decisions between alternatives; compensatory rules, where alternatives are compared on all attributes such that a low score on one attribute may be redeemed with a high score on another attribute, and non-compensatory rules, where people consider each alternative on one attribute in serial and discard inadequate options immediately.

In situations where decisions can be made easily, people are more likely to employ compensatory decision rules, but in situations that are more complex, people tend to go with a single-elimination non-compensatory system. Further, he found that voters who used compensatory rules had more realistic views of the candidates, including lower evaluations of their preferred candidate and high evaluations of rejected candidates than people who use non-compensatory rules. Single issue voters, like people who vote based only on a politician’s stance on gun rights or abortion, are using non-compensatory rules, and the narrowness of their decision-making process leads to worse decisions. It’s always better to have more information than less!

Redlawsk, D. P. (2004). What voters do: Information search during election campaigns. Political Psychology25(4), 595-610.

Warmth and Competence: Ambivalent Sexism keeps Women out of Politics

On July 28, 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to become the presidential nominee for a major political party in the US. People talked of her breaking the glass ceiling, ushering in a new era where women will be seriously considered alongside men for the highest office in the nation. But why has it taken so long for a woman to be a serious candidate for president? Women earned the right to vote once the 19th amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, almost a century ago. And even though we make up half of the population, we only make up about 20% of congresspeople. Why is it that women don’t have proportional representation in our federal government?

It may be due to the fact that people often think of others in terms of their competence and warmth. Ideally, people rate high on both, but most people are seen as warm at the expense of being seen as competent, or vice versa. Unfortunately, warmth is a quality we expect from women, so while men often just need to rate high in competence, highly competent women are seen with envy, resulting in ambivalent sexism, a type of sexism that isn’t necessarily hostile (e.g. women are all gold diggers) or benevolent (e.g. women need to be protected by men). Women who are seen as competent but not warm are often non-traditional women, as opposed to filling housewife or sex object roles, they occupy career paths, or compete as athletes, filling spaces traditionally reserved for men. Traditional women tend to be seen as warm and likable, but they don’t garner respect.

So women are forced to walk a pretty fine line, they need to be seen as competent, but not so competent that they wouldn’t make you a sandwich. This may underlie the difficulty women have getting elected to office. If they reach the point where they are seen as competent enough for the job, they are often seen as unlikeable. If they compensate by upping the warmth factor, they may be compromising their competence. It’s a lose-lose situation for many women. Just ask Hillary Clinton, who has had a difficult time drumming up enthusiasm for her candidacy. People regularly say she’s qualified for the job and she is often seen as highly competent. But warmth? People just don’t want to have a beer with her. And while many of our male leaders have been seen as charismatic, it’s worth wondering how many of them have had to make a concerted effort to appear likable, as well as good at their jobs. For men, the latter is often the only real requirement.

 

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A model of (often mixed) stereotype content: competence and warmth respectively follow from perceived status and competition. Journal of personality and social psychology82(6), 878.

Women and sexual harrassment: They just let you do it

Trigger warning: Includes personal story about sexual harassment, includes foul language

It’s safe to say election 2016 is in full dumpster fire mode. Donald Trump’s comments on the leaked tape released last week were shocking coming from a presidential candidate, yet they weren’t that shocking to a lot of women. Michelle Obama gave a speech today explaining why. Describing every woman’s experience, Obama talks about how women are used to men treating us as lesser beings, because we see it everywhere from the classrooms where we’re educated, to the strangers catcalling us on the street.

Her speech reminded me of an experience I had working for a man with a serious Napoleon complex when I was 19. The man might as well have been a small statured Donald Trump. I was a hostess at a popular restaurant, and I was required to wear heels while I stood for 8 hour shifts. The one time I dared to wear a cardigan, I was told to take it off and never wear it again because I didn’t look “as fuckable as usual.” My boss would watch me on a camera and call me every time he didn’t approve of my behavior. Why hadn’t I fluffed the pillows if no one was there? Why was there a napkin on the floor in the bar? Why did I leave the host stand to get a napkin off the floor in the bar? I was always being watched, and it made my skin crawl. Before I walked out of that job after a bout of verbal abuse, he said that he thought I’d make a good waitress, and if I wanted to come back next summer, he’d love to have me. I smiled and thanked him for the compliment, but, inside, I felt gross. The man had yelled at me and belittled me all day for a job that mostly entails leading people to chairs and talking like a human person, and not only did he think I’d want to keep working for him, he thought that he was being nice to me. And you know what? I never told that man how I felt about how he treated me. He was my boss, I was 19 and he was in his 40s, I was a hostess and he owned the restaurant. I sucked it up. I said nothing. And I feel ashamed about that, because that man continued to treat people that way, thinking no one had a real problem with it. When you’re the boss, they let you do it.

Why don’t people tell others how they really feel about things that they said or did when it happens? Social psychologists explain this with the person by situation interaction.1 It basically means that people bring themselves into situations, but then they sometimes behave unlike themselves due to those situations. While I would call out a friend for sexist and abusive behavior or language, I wouldn’t do it in the workplace, to a man with all the power when I had none, or even to a coworker I had to see regularly. The truth is, a lot of people’s behavior really is driven by situations that they are in. Do we become totally different people? Absolutely not. But do we sometimes do things and then wonder why we did them? Ask the 5 cookies I just ate. Yes. We do. So while people may behave out of character occasionally, maybe your usually loyal partner starts a flirtation with someone else, or a good friend says something not-so-nice behind your back when other people are talking about you, a pattern of such behavior is telling.

People often make the fundamental attribution error about other people’s behavior, which means that they assume that the behavior is indicative of the person’s dispositional characteristics, who they really are inside. Luckily, there is a way to determine if someone’s behavior is a demonstration of their true personality, or if it was influenced by situational factors. According to Kelley’s Attribution Theory, or Kelley’s Cube2, you can ask yourself 3 questions:

  1. Is there consensus about the behavior? If everyone is behaving that way, it’s probably influenced by the situation. For instance, if a lot of your coworkers are irritable the morning someone breaks the coffee machine, it probably isn’t the case your coworkers are just jerks all the time.
  1. Is there consistency in the person’s behavior? If someone acts in a certain way a good amount of the time, their behavior is likely due to their personality, their dispositional characteristics. For instance, if a friend constantly leaves their wallet at home every time you go to dinner with them, they’re probably a forgetful person by nature, or, more pessimistically, a manipulative one.
  1. Is the behavior distinctive, does it vary depending on what’s happening? If it does vary, then you can attribute it to the situation. For instance, if a person with normally good self-control eats a whole carton of ice cream, it may be due to some sort of emotional crisis rather than having a hearty appetite.

What worries me, and many women, is that Donald Trump’s behavior makes it clear that he really feels exactly like Michelle Obama said. This is who Trump really is, and it’s gross. He is every boss that ever stared at your ass on a closed circuit camera, he is every man on the street that thinks his evaluation of your physical characteristics is so important for you to hear you should take your earbuds out, he is every guy who buys you a drink at the bar when you said no and then gets mad that you won’t talk to him because he bought you a drink. Women see you Donald Trump. We don’t let you do it. We just feel like we can’t say no. And to answer the question you keep asking, we actually have a hell of a lot to lose.

  1. Mischel, W. (1977). The interaction of person and situation. Personality at the crossroads: Current issues in interactional psychology333, 352.
  1. Kelley, H. H. (1967). Attribution theory in social psychology. In Nebraska symposium on motivation. University of Nebraska Press.

 

White Privilege at the voting booth: How pervasive is white privilege?

36749-white-privilege-does-not-mean-a-white-person-has-money-but-refers-to

Image from Quote Addicts

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh wrote a famous piece called, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.”1 In the essay, she discusses how belonging to advantaged groups, like white people or men, contributes to the ways that we navigate and perceive our worlds. She makes a stirring point about how easy it is to recognize racism, but that we often have a difficult time seeing how we may be advantaged due to the existence of that racism. You don’t not need to be engaging in racist behavior, using racial epithets or endorsing the bigotries of others in order to be advantaged by societal attitudes. The sad thing, McIntosh points out, is that people who are oppressive in their societal roles are often unaware that they are occupying roles at all.

For instance, people don’t readily recognize that they are more likely to hire white people over people of color, but research shows that this is indeed the case.2 When researchers sent out identical resumes, but with black or white sounding names, people with white sounding names received 50% more interview requests.2 White people are often convinced that anti-white sentiment is actually becoming a bigger problem than anti-black bias, and that attempts to decrease racism are a “zero-sum game” that increases bias towards whites.3 And that’s pretty damn troubling, y’all. As Jen pointed out last week, implicit bias against black people, and black men in particular, results in a larger number of escalated police encounters. While white people are becoming increasingly concerned about being blamed for the problems of minorities, black people are literally worried about being killed in the middle of the day during a routine traffic stop.

As per usual, arguments that equate racism and “reverse racism”* present a false equivalence: there is no systematic disadvantage to being white. White people are armed with our invisible knapsack of privilege. We dominate accounts of history, we see images that look like ourselves everywhere and we can be assured that when things don’t go our way, it is likely not because we’re white. Peggy McIntosh so eloquently hits on the subtlety of privilege in her essay, so I will borrow some of her words. “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” “When I am told about our national heritage or about ‘civilization,’ I am shown that people of my color made it what it is,” “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group,” “I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race,” and  “I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.”

What McIntosh is tapping into here is how unrecognizable the receipt of privilege is. We are not aware that it is happening unless we attempt to be aware of it. We enjoy these invisible privileges, and resent others for suggesting that we have such privileges at all. Even within the context of our presidential election, we have one candidate who is recognizing the disadvantages that black citizens are experiencing on all levels of the legal system, and we have another suggesting that a racist, unconstitutional policy should be widely implemented in order to restore “law and order” to our cities.

For some, the solution is this simple. Black neighborhoods are more violent, therefore black people are more violent, therefore we need to police them with more vigor. For others, there is recognition that the problems in black neighborhoods have much to do with the lack of white privilege. Lack of access to quality education, lack of exposure to suitable role models, lack of mentorship from non-family members, lack of networking contacts in hiring positions, lack of parental free-time to help with home education…You could go on for days. The fact is that there is a flip side to implicit bias, and it’s this kind of implicit inflation. There’s a famous saying, “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” Sometimes, we simply can’t take credit for everything that we have. We didn’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Sometimes, we received some of those things simply because we are white, or we at least had easier access to them because we have racial privilege. And make no mistake, there are plenty of kinds of privilege. Class, male, and heterosexual privilege all exist as well. People who are advantaged in one domain are not necessarily advantaged in all domains.

In election years in particular, it’s important to recognize where our thinking may suggest that we have a narrow perspective on the issue. Barack and Michelle Obama have recently talked about how third-party votes in this election are votes for Donald Trump. People who disagree have taken to online forums declaring that they are simply voting their conscience, and not violating their own sense of integrity. Well, the next president will choose at least 2 Supreme Court justices, will have access to the nuclear codes and has the ability to set women’s, minority and LGBT rights back by several years. But at least you can tuck your integrity into your invisible knapsack.

*In quotes, because it doesn’t exist. Anti-white bias, prejudice or discrimination, sure, but not racism, due to a lack of systematic disadvantage due to being white.

  1. McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Race, class, and gender in the United States: An integrated study4, 165-169.
  2. Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg more employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A field experiment on labor market discrimination. The American Economic Review94(4), 991-1013.
  3. Norton, M. I., & Sommers, S. R. (2011). Whites see racism as a zero-sum game that they are now losing. Perspectives on Psychological Science6(3), 215-218.

 

Psych in Sum: Confirmation Bias in Politics

confirmation_bias

Image from Clay Bennett

We saw the first debate between the two major party nominees for president this Monday, and critiques of the candidates’ performances flooded the internet. As with every debate, there are people declaring victory on both sides. Not only did their candidate win, but he/she mopped the floor with the other one! But political experts largely agree that Hillary Clinton won the debate, and polls of likely voters that were conducted offline show the majority of the electorate thinks Clinton won as well. So how do a bunch of people take some unscientific online polls and use them as real evidence that Trump won? Confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is a tendency to seek out information that supports your position (hello .net web address!) and to interpret information in such a way that it confirms what you already think.1 Everyone is vulnerable to this bias. In fact, scientists regularly try to avoid having their a priori beliefs affect the later interpretation of their data through various techniques, like deciding sample size before looking at the results, or using a blind experimental design. They go through this trouble because we know that people tend to selectively expose themselves to information they agree with, and tend to ignore information they don’t agree with.1 That isn’t good science, and it isn’t the road to good decision-making either.

Thinking your biases are founded in fact can be extremely problematic and lead to overconfidence in judgments, such that you are more certain your judgment is correct than your evidence warrants.And if there’s something worse than someone who is wrong, it’s someone who is desperately trying to convince you they aren’t. Generally, if you look hard enough, you’re going to find something that assures you that you are right. Whether or not that something has any real merit is often another story.

 

  1. Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of general psychology2(2), 175.
  2. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1977). Intuitive prediction: Biases and corrective procedures. DECISIONS AND DESIGNS INC MCLEAN VA.

Pernicious personalities: The real threat of narcissistic leadership

trump

Image from The Independent

Personality traits are often somewhat ambiguous. While it’s good to be agreeable, it’s not good to be TOO agreeable. While it’s good to be conscientious, you can be so conscientious that you never eat that piece of cake or splurge on that great meal. But narcissism, having an overinflated view of the self that leads to a sense of entitlement, self-centeredness and superiority, is pretty clear cut. Narcissism is bad for everyone. Being a narcissist comes with no real long term advantages, though short term advantages might be present. In fact, narcissism is such a bad quality that it’s considered part of the “dark triad” of personality traits, which also includes Machiavellianism (being very manipulative) and psychopathy (being callous and lacking empathy).1 Narcissism is not simply having high self-esteem, it is having a grandiose sense of self that is not grounded in reality.

That description might as well be a description of Donald Trump, former reality star and gold enthusiast and current candidate for the Presidency of the United States. When Donald Trump equates his personal success with the sacrifices of a gold star family, or when he talks about how he alone can fix the problems we face (after all, he knows more about ISIS than the generals and he could deal with thorny issues like illegal immigration and health care during his first 100 days in office), he is displaying a classic example of the narcissistic personality. So why do we care?

Well, psychologists have not only studied how narcissism affects individuals, they have also studied how narcissistic leaders affect their constituency. Jerrold Post has suggested that narcissistic leaders have impaired judgment and decision making.2 Because narcissists tend to think they know best, they are less likely to take criticism or advice from others. This is obviously a terrible leadership quality, as narcissistic leaders are more likely to make uninformed decisions, or to go forward with decisions even once contrary information has come to light. Because narcissists have a grandiose view of themselves, they are more likely to be overly optimistic about the efficacy of their beliefs.2 This problem is compounded by the narcissistic tendency to surround oneself with people who agree with the narcissist.3 In the case of the narcissist, the “best people” to surround himself with are the people who agree with him.

But the problems don’t stop there. Betty Glad finds that narcissistic leaders have an easier time rising to power than they do in actually wielding it.3 Narcissists are charismatic, so it is not surprising that narcissism may sometimes help someone get into a position of power.3 But Glad finds that once that power is attained, narcissists run into some serious problems.3 Oftentimes, narcissists have very bad ideas that cannot be enacted when they don’t have power. But once they do, they are less in touch with reality, more likely to display erratic behavior, have difficulty attaining goals and ultimately become paranoid and defensive.3 And when you surround yourself with people who agree with you, this leads to the perfect storm of malignant narcissistic leadership: Someone who thinks too highly of themselves and their own ideas, running essentially unchecked.

There is one more quality of narcissistic leaders that makes them incredibly dangerous: They have superego deficiencies.3 In other words, narcissistic leaders don’t have a very well developed conscience. The very thing that prompts restraint in our actions, that encourages us to think about how our actions affect others, that tells us to put the brakes on when our ideas are out of control…this basic sense of restraint and morality that children develop early on in life is largely missing from narcissistic leaders. So the next time Donald Trump asks why we can’t use nuclear weapons or vows to deport 11 million people, take him seriously. He has demonstrated that he isn’t a man who can really conceive of the consequences of his actions. But we know better. You cannot declare bankruptcy to get out of nuclear war.

 

  1. Paulhus, D. L., & Williams, K. M. (2002). The dark triad of personality: Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Journal of research in personality36(6), 556-563.
  1. Post, J.M. (1993). Current concepts of the narcissistic personality: Implications for Political Psychology. Political Psychology, 14(1), 99-121.
  1. Glad, B. (2002). Why tyrants go too far: Malignant narcissism and absolute power. Political Psychology23(1), 1-37.