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.

  1. Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1991). Loss aversion in riskless choice: A reference-dependent model. The quarterly journal of economics, 1039-1061.
  2. Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. The journal of economic perspectives5(1), 193-206.
  3. Thaler, R. H., Tversky, A., Kahneman, D., & Schwartz, A. (1997). The effect of myopia and loss aversion on risk taking: An experimental test. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 647-661.
  4. Cialdini, R. B. (1987). Influence(Vol. 3). A. Michel.

Good Germans: Authority and obedience make dangerous bedfellows

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Image of Eichmann’s trial from the Daily Beast

“I was just following orders.” It is these famous words of Adolf Eichmann’s, uttered during his trial for crimes against humanity in 1961, that made Stanley Milgram’s career. Eichmann had been a high level Nazi officer, and was responsible for carrying out Hitler’s final solution by deporting millions of Jews to concentration camps. The world was shocked by the extent of the atrocities of the Third Reich, that the Nazis killed untold millions of people in response to the orders of an unhinged authoritarian leader. Stanley Milgram, the American son of Jewish immigrants, was born in 1933, around the time Hitler rose to power in Germany. By the time 1961 rolled around, Milgram was an assistant professor at Yale, and he had devised and begun his famous Obedience experiments. Milgram posited that authority figures may elicit an uncomfortable level of obedience from their subordinates, as evidenced by the German people getting swept up in a demagogue’s maniacal vision. He sought to prove that completely normal people could commit unspeakable acts against other humans, simply because they were following orders from an authority figure.

Allow me to set the scene. You arrive at Yale University in response to an ad in the New Haven newspaper. You figure you’ll make $4.50 on what has been described as a learning experiment. After being introduced to another man, you are randomly assigned to be the teacher and he is randomly assigned to be the learner. You both move into adjacent rooms. In front of you, there’s a big shiny box with 30 marked switches ranging from 15 volts to 450 volts. You come to find that the learner is hooked up to this machine in the other room. You are told to ask the learner a question and shock him if he gets the answer wrong. You are supposed to administer a higher voltage shock for each incorrect answer. You ask the first question. The learner is correct. You move on. But soon, he begins to be wrong quite a bit, and you are moving fast through the switches. 200 volts. Flick, buzz. 215 volts. Flick, buzz. Finally, you get to 300 volts. The learner is wrong. You flick the switch; you hear the buzz of the shock. Suddenly, you hear loud banging on the wall. The learner is trying to signal you. You look to the experimenter in the room with you. He seems unalarmed. He tells you to keep going.

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Image of Milgram with his shock generator from Aeon

You put your finger on the 315-volt switch and ask your question. The learner is wrong again. You flip the switch. Flick, buzz. The learner bangs on the wall again, trying to signal you. Again, you turn towards the experimenter. You are told that it is imperative to the experiment that you continue. You ask another question. The learner is silent. You look to the experimenter. He tells you that no answer is the same as an incorrect answer. You flip the 330-volt switch. Flick, buzz. Silence. You look at the experimenter. At this point you are getting nervous. You start to sweat profusely. You’re laughing for some reason even though this is not funny at all. You suspect that you may be hurting the other man. You suspect that the other man may no longer be able to respond. But the experimenter tells you that you must continue, that you have no choice. And you do. Question, silence, flick, buzz. Question, silence, flick, buzz. You get to the last switch. 450 volts. It clearly says “Danger-Severe Shock.” You are shaking, completely beside yourself. You ask your last question. Silence again. You put your finger on the last switch. You flick it. You hear the buzz of the shock. You are so relieved it’s over. You’ve never been more disturbed by your own actions in your life. In the other room, you still hear nothing but silence.

When people hear about this experiment, they swear that they would never do this. They would stop as soon as the other man alerted them that he wanted to stop. But 65% of participants shocked the learner all the way until the highest voltage, even though he had failed to respond to 10 questions in a row after banging on the wall. Even though many subjects showed severe signs of distress and expressed concern that they might have hurt the learner, only 14 out of 40 stopped in between the learner’s first protest and the end of the experiment. Most participants were experiencing serious discomfort, but continued to do something they thought was hurting someone else simply because they were told to keep going by an authority figure.

Milgram’s findings even surprised himself. People he had polled doubted that anyone would go all the way to the end, generally estimating that just a few people would actually administer the final shock. But two-thirds of the participants were willing to act outside of their own personal values not to hurt other people, simply because the experimenter asked them to. They were paid up front and told that they could leave at any time without penalty. They were all grown men, not college students. They had never met the other man, a confederate of the experimenter who was never actually shocked, and they had no reason to inflict harm on him. In fact, most participants rated the confederate as being pretty pleasant. Why would people continue to go on when they could have stopped? Milgram had his answer. People are shockingly malleable when authorities are involved. They will often go along with things with little to no explanation as to why they are doing it, and then rationalize their own actions to themselves once they become uncomfortable. Because we don’t like to think of ourselves as bad people, we start to believe that what we are doing is okay. This is classic cognitive dissonance.

When Hitler rose to power in Germany, he did so by appealing to disillusioned Germans who were struggling to feed their families and blaming their struggles on the “impurity” of the Jewish people. He combined hopeful rhetoric about the glory of Germany with hateful rhetoric about how the Jews were responsible for Germany’s challenges. Within 12 years, Hitler had ordered the extermination of up to 6,000,000 innocent Jews. Hitler’s populist, xenophobic talk led to World War II and the largest genocide in the history of the world. The power of a single authority is enough to bring the whole world to its knees. And the men and women who helped Hitler carry out his atrocities? Well, they were just following orders.

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Image from Pinterest

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.

Black Votes Matter: Whitewashing the Election

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Image from the ACLU

As this election reaches the lowest depths of hell, I, like many Americans, find myself sucked into the black hole of election coverage. Last night, I was researching an obviously false internet claim from a #stillbernie bro about Bernie winning as many votes as Hillary in the primaries, and I found this statistic from Pew Research Center:

“While Bernie Sanders (50 percent) edged out Hillary Clinton (48 percent) among white voters overall, 77 percent of black Democratic primary voters chose Clinton.”

From a social psychology perspective, this explains so much to me about what I’ve been seeing on my own social media feeds for months. Bernie did win more votes than Hillary…among white people. Many white people see that a lot of their white friends voted for Bernie and he didn’t win, so obviously something is up. In general, people are prone to the false-consensus bias, which leads them to believe that their opinions, values and actions are largely shared and approved of by others.1 And it doesn’t help that we largely surround ourselves with people who are similar to us and share our beliefs anyway.2 But the electorate is not just made up of white people. Clinton crushed Bernie among African-Americans with 77% of the vote. That’s a resounding defeat. An unequivocal statement. Black Americans clearly chose Clinton. This isn’t a history blog, so we won’t deep dive into America’s ugly track record with civil rights, stretching back to slavery and the Three-Fifths Compromise, up to present day as 5 states have active law suits alleging minority voter intimidation and suppression by the Republican party during this very election (Arizona, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina). But, suffice it to say, attempting to downplay the legitimacy of the black vote is not a good look, and, you know, is fundamentally opposed to the ideals of our democracy. White people claiming their voices are being systematically stifled in an American election is laughable at best, and downright insulting at worst.

Which white people on my news feeds have been as passionate about the ongoing voter suppression of black citizens as they were about Bernie’s defeat in the “rigged” primaries? I have yet to see one. I haven’t really seen much among white people in general, because white people associate with other white people, at work, on the internet, at their polling places. They don’t necessarily have significant exposure to issues facing marginalized groups, and therefore they don’t have significant exposure to those groups’ opinions about said issues. The fact is, white people often grow up in predominantly white neighborhoods and go to predominantly white schools. They rarely, if ever, experience race-related discrimination, and the absence of that discrimination creates a space to deny its very existence. For many white Americans, black suffering is not that visible. There are 1,080,000 Google search results for “black voter suppression” and 475,000 Google search results for “Bernie Sanders voter suppression.” One of these issues began in 1619, the other began 9 months ago. Talk about unbalanced media coverage.

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Image from the New York Times

Bernie supporters were quick to point to his past as a civil rights protestor and Hillary’s support for the 1994 Crime Bill as reasons that black Americans should vote for Bernie. Yet, black citizens overwhelmingly supported Clinton over Bernie, making it obvious that white democratic voters may be out of touch with what matters to democrats as a group. Such divides even spawned articles telling people to stop Bernie-splaining to black Americans. Gordan Allport’s Contact Hypothesis suggests that the best way to reduce intergroup prejudice and encourage understanding is for people from both groups to have contact with one another.3 The groups have to have positive contact, work toward a common goal, have equal status, cooperate with one another, have the support of the community at large and actually spend a good amount of time getting to know one another for it to actually work. Why don’t a lot of protest-voting white Americans see that many others have a great deal at stake under a Trump presidency? A lot of it may come down to who they have contact with. Without meaningful intergroup contact, it may be impossible for us to understand the experiences of people outside of our own circles.

Yes, Hillary Clinton barely lost the white vote in the primaries, but to ignore the fact that she garnered the majority of the minority vote among African and Hispanic or Latino Americans is to ignore that Clinton definitively won the primary among American democrats as a whole. She just didn’t win among white democrats. But elections are decided by who shows up to cast their ballot, not whichever race has traditionally held power in a country. When elections don’t go our way, it doesn’t mean that they are rigged. To assume that the average white voter reflects the larger concerns of the American electorate is to assume too much in the 21st century. Black Americans have told us in no uncertain terms that they back Clinton, and they always have. And black votes matter.

  1. Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of experimental social psychology13(3), 279-301.
  2. Byrne, D. (1961). Interpersonal attraction and attitude similarity. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology62(3), 713.
  3. Pettigrew, T. F., & Tropp, L. R. (2005). Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis: Its history and influence. On the nature of prejudice50, 262-277.

This post is as much for me as it is for you: Coping with election anxiety in the final days

Raise your hand if your quota for election stress has been filled. Raise your hand if it was filled months ago. Raise both hands if you’re overwhelmed by the possible outcomes but are still struggling to disengage from election news coverage.

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Boy Meets World. Cory embodies all of our thoughts.

Yeah, me too.

And we’re not alone. In October, the American Psychological Association (APA) released preliminary findings showing that more than half of Americans consider this election as a very or somewhat significant source of stress. These stress levels were the same regardless of a person’s party affiliation (at least America is united on that front). The entire study hasn’t been released yet, but I’m willing to bet that for folks of marginalized groups, that number is even higher.

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The good news is that we’re in the final countdown. As of this post, we have FIVE remaining days. The bad news is that this final countdown is accompanied by a fever pitch of worry, stress, final efforts to rally voters, claims of poll-watching, and antagonism against voters of color. This election is, as I’ve heard several folks say, a veritable dumpster fire for so many reasons. So, if you’re feeling this stress especially, please take note. The APA has offered concrete tips on how to cope (the full press release is here), paraphrased and annotated with my comments below:

LIMIT your media consumption. Read enough to be informed and then close out social media apps. Pick an activity that you truly enjoy, that’s accessible, and that will provide some decompression. Force yourself to do this at least once a day.

Don’t be reluctant to avoid discussing politics if you think the conversation may lead to conflict. It’s OKAY to protect yourself. Try to be aware of how often you’re discussing the election, even with like-minded others.

Stress and anxiety about the outcome is not productive. If you have the time and means, direct your energy elsewhere. Be proactive! Consider volunteering in your community (election or non-election related), especially if you live in a state with critical local and state-level election (hint: if you live in NC, then ding ding ding). Or if you need something less intense, maybe take up baking. This pumpkin bread recipe is a favorite of mine. Yoga is also an incredibly beneficial activity that reduces cortisol and stress.[1][2]

Whatever happens on Nov. 8, life will go on. Checks and balances exist for a reason. We can expect a significant degree of stability immediately after a major transition of government. Avoid catastrophizing, and maintain a balanced perspective. This suggestion, especially, is what many apocalypse-fearing people might need to restore their faith. I’m putting my faith in this point, because I need to, despite my catastrophizing self warning me to disregard it. I urge you to do the same.

Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. It’s the least you can do. And then, of course, take a selfie with your “I voted” sticker and post it with pride. Don’t forget to close out of social media immediately afterwards.

A lot of folks are scared. Some are just fed up and 9 months past cynical. Taking care of yourself is critical in these next few days. Be mindful of what you’re thinking, feeling, eating, doing. Pay attention to your environment and know your triggers.

On Nov. 9, the next chapter begins. Until then, take care of yourself. We can go from there.

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Mindful breathing exercise: inhale as the shape expands. Exhale as it contracts. (Source: mathani.tumblr.com)

 


[1] Chong, Tsunaka, Tsang, Chan, & Cheung. (Jan/Feb 2011). Effects of yoga on stress management in healthy adults: A systematic review. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 17, 32-38.

[2] West, Otte, Geher, Johnson, & Mohr. (2004). Effects of Hatha yoga and African dance on perceived stress, affect, and salivary cortisol. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 28, 114-118.

The problem with seeing black men as bad dudes

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One year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. Barclays Center, Brooklyn.

Today is September 21, 2016. Keith Scott is the latest black man to be shot and killed by the police. Scott was killed on September 20, 2016, in Charlotte, NC. Terence Crutcher was killed the day before on September 19, 2016, in Tulsa, OK. These men are just the last two to make the news.

Most of these men are unarmed. All of them are black. In fact, black people are three times more likely than white people to be killed by police. For Scott’s and Crutcher’s deaths, police officers justified their decision to shoot by claiming that the individual posed an “imminent deadly threat” (in the case of Scott) or used factors such as the man’s appearance, “That looks like a bad dude, too,” (in the case of Crutcher) to warrant further investigation.

I shouldn’t say claim. I’m sure the officers really believed they were under imminent threat or that Crutcher really was a bad dude. And that’s exactly the problem. Their minds made a split second survival decision to protect themselves and do what they swore to do as a police officer. They made that decision while operating on high alert, unknowingly under the influence of their implicit biases. Those split-second decisions are not the cause, but rather, the symptom of a larger graver issue. Of institutional racism and prejudice that has been with America since before its founding. Many of you reading this already know and accept this. For those of you who don’t, please keep reading.

These split second decisions are killing black people, especially men. If you can stomach it, watch the footage of Philando Castile’s shooting. The officer doesn’t even seem to realize that he’s shot Castille. He’s still standing there at the window in shock, cursing. The actual decision to shoot and the aftermath all seemed to happen so fast. Situations like that are why implicit racial stereotyping and lack of awareness of how to de-bias are so deadly.

We’ve covered implicit bias on SocialPsyQ before when discussing last year’s triple homicide in Chapel Hill, NC, but never in the context of police shootings. As a refresher, implicit biases are automatic (i.e., below the surface of consciousness; not being aware of it) stereotypes or prejudices that people hold, almost always without being aware of them.1 Social psychologists have been studying implicit biases and their effects on behavior and society for years. These biases are deeply ingrained and automatic and yet may still guide our actions and behavior.2 As one researcher said, “the characteristic in question (skin color, age, sexual orientation) operates so quickly…that people have no time to deliberate. It is for this reason that people are often surprised to find that they show implicit bias” (Jolls & Sunstein, 2006, p. 975).

 In a 2011 study, Kahn and Davies found that the more stereotypically black a person looked (e.g., darker skin, broader nose, fuller lips) compared to a less stereotypically black person or white person, the stronger a participant’s implicit bias was in a split-second “shoot/don’t shoot” situation. In other words, participants were more likely to shoot people the “blacker” they looked. And not only were they more likely to shoot them, they were also quicker to make the decision to do so, because of the stronger implicit bias.

In a similar 2006 study, Correll, Urland, and Ito found that participants (98% of whom were not black) playing a video game “shot armed black targets more quickly than armed white targets and decided not to shoot unarmed white targets more quickly than unarmed black targets.” This biased behavior pattern was especially true for participants who had reported a stronger association between violence and black people. The findings of these studies, conducted in lab settings, are a disturbing and sickening parallel to what is literally happening across America.

The shootings are the worst escalation of this implicit bias, but there are many other seemingly milder situations of black people being stopped by police and treated suspiciously or unfairly compared to non-black people. Consider this: compared to a white person stopped for a seatbelt violation, a black person is 176% more likely to have their vehicle searched. The Open Data Policing table below shows that, except for driving while impaired, black people are more likely than white people to have their vehicle searched for any violation. Did I mention this is real data from 2015 stops within the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police’s jurisdiction?

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2015 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Search by Stop-Cause: Black vs. white. Open Data Policing NC.

 And for those of you reading this who still want to resist these stats and claim that officers are shooting white people, too, I say, yes, you’re right. Police officers are shooting and killing white people (and other people of color, for that matter), but these situations, though unfortunate and not excusable, are generally proportionate to the number of white people in the U.S. In other words, the stats on those situations don’t point to white people being singled out, whereas they do for situations of black people being killed. Terence Crutcher was having car trouble when he was approached by police. The threshold for perceiving a white man as “posing a deadly and imminent threat” is substantially higher than perceiving a black man as such, as Kahn and Davies and Correll and colleagues found. Consider Dylann Roof, the white terrorist who killed 9 black people attending bible study in Charleston last summer. Not only was he arrested alive, he was given a bulletproof vest for protection. The hypocritical double standard is nearly laughable if the consequences weren’t so grave.

You might also want to say that the police overall aren’t bad people, they’re trying to do their jobs. Or, there are just a few bad apples. Again, I agree with you. There are probably a few bad apples, and I don’t even necessarily believe those are the ones who have committed these fatal shootings. And I would agree that most police officers aren’t bad people.

Here’s the thing, though: it’s not just about the actions of an individual police officer (although they do need to be held accountable).

Here’s another thing: making a terrible decision under pressure doesn’t make you a bad person. How you respond to and accept responsibility for that decision is another story.

These shootings represent a heightened state of racial tension in this country. They represent implicit racism that is so deeply deeply ingrained in the American psyche and the justice system that many don’t even recognize it as such. White people continue to try and make justifications and rationalize these killings. Why? Stop. It’s over. You’re wrong. Nothing you say changes the fact that 194 black people (in 2016 ALONE) are dead.

What is there to do? Some police departments are considering implicit bias training, but using these trainings as a one size fits all isn’t necessarily a good idea. Instead, Destiny Peery, a law professor at Northwestern University, urges comprehensive multi-pronged approaches like Campaign Zero, which are likely to be more effective in protecting against bias.

It’s a start.

Black lives matter, y’all. Say it and do something about it. I’m talking to you, fellow white people. Are you going to stand by? Educate yourself, regardless of your profession. We all hold implicit biases. We’re still accountable for them. We don’t have to be beholden to them.

_________

If you’re a white person interested in offering your support and solidarity in the wake of the recent shootings, consider looking up your local Standing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) chapter. Or take an anti-racist training, like this one or this one.

1 – Devine (1989). Stereotypes and prejudice: Their automatic and controlled components. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 5-18.

2 – Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner (2002). Implicit and explicit prejudice and interracial interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 62-68.

3 – Kahn & Davies. (2011). Differentially dangerous? Phenotypic racial stereotypicality increases implicit bias among ingroup and outgroup members. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 14, 569-580.

4 – Correll, Urland, & Ito. (2006). Event-related potentials and the decision to shoot: The role of threat perception and cognitive control. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 120-128.

5 – Jolls & Sunstein. (2006). The law of implicit bias. Faculty Scholarship Series, Yale Law School. Paper 1824. http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/1824/

 

Feeling 9/11 and its aftermath: America swings right

We don’t typically share first person narratives, but this is an emotional and relevant issue for many Americans. Rather than share something less meaningful to me, I offer my experience of 9/11 and the way I try to make sense of it as a social psychologist.

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Brooklyn Bridge and World Trade Center

Today marks the 15th anniversary of 9/11. The national tragedy was also a local one for me. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb about an hour’s drive from New York City (which, to me, will always be the city). My town was full of commuters who worked in the city. The skyline was visible from our beaches. Half of my classmates were originally from New York. Proximity to the city and, thus, its cultural and financial opportunities was taken as a matter of course, but that didn’t diminish people’s pride of it. After all, it’s New York City. Legendary.

I was 13 on September 11, 2001. In my middle school that day, rumors buzzed, most only half-accurate, about what was happening a mere 22 miles from where we sat: a plane flew into the Empire State Building. No, it was the World Trade Center. What? How could a pilot be that off course? No one understood then that it was terrorism. Why would anyone suspect that? We were sheltered, privileged from that type of national tragedy, like most Americans at that time. The new normal hadn’t yet descended. Teachers had been asked not to say anything to us, and social media didn’t exist. Parents were picking their kids up from school all morning. By lunchtime, our table had three empty seats. Missing were three of my friends whose parents worked in the city (they ended up being okay, fortunately). That’s when we knew something serious had happened. I managed to get some more information out of my guidance counselor at lunch; he liked me. He wouldn’t give me many details, but when I asked, Is it really bad? Are people dead? He said yes.

By the time we walked home from the bus stop, the rumors had evolved: there was still a plane in the air, and no one knew the target. I craned my head up to see if I could spot anything. It was sunny that day, the sky a brilliant blue. Details like these seem dramatic, clichéd, but they underscore the contrast between what seemed impossible and what was actually happening. We knew now that it was terrorism, but the implications of what that truly meant were still uncertain.

That night, my parents and I, my younger sister—at 9, too young to understand but old enough to be scared—were glued to the news. The coverage was gratuitous, repeated footage of the first plane crashing into the North Tower, then the South Tower. Eventually, the collapse. People running, covered in ash, crying. At 13, I had never seen suffering so widespread. I couldn’t stop watching even though it made me feel terrible. My homework for the night, several pages from my Spanish workbook, lay forgotten in my hands, though I clutched the pages tightly.

The next day, I went to school. The township wanted to maintain routine as much as possible. Walking to my bus I smelled the smoke from the Towers that had drifted south. Classmates in the northern part of my town, closest to the city, woke to ash on their lawns.

Those following days, weeks, months blur together. Names were released of neighbors, classmates’ parents, parents’ friends who died in the Towers. Close call stories were told and repeated, like my parent’s friend who was supposed to be on the plane that flew into the South Tower. He had cancelled his business trip at the last minute. From a pier, my best friend’s dad watched one of the Towers come down. My cousin, who lived in Manhattan, volunteered for the bucket brigade at Ground Zero. These stories, these tragedies, they were national, yes. America had been attacked. But they were also local. They felt deeply personal to those of us in the tri-state area; I’m certain that was the case for those living in D.C., too.

The vividness of that day remains with me now, at 28. I still get goosebumps when I think about 9/11. I intentionally avoid movies and TV specials about that day. It upsets me too much. Sometimes, I get angry when I hear about 9/11 or see another movie about it. That day has already done too much damage to the American psyche. Let’s stop profiting from people’s grief.

Now that I’m older, the pain of 9/11 and its aftermath have grown in complexity. I mourn that day and the lives lost, the loss of collective American innocence on a grand scale.

And now I see it through the lens of a social psychologist. Research indicates that shifting toward a more conservative ideology after tragedies is common.1 As our recent post on ideology explained, conservative/right-wing thinking is about endorsing the status quo, resisting change, and prioritizing stability and order. Going to war fits in that category. Taking action to return to the status quo is also a conservative action. This conservative shift happened to many Americans following 9/11. In one study, liberal and conservative participants alike endorsed more conservative attitudes after 9/11 than before.2 People who endorse conservative beliefs likely do so to reduce uncertainty, fear, and anxiety, or as a way to regain stability and order.3 In other words, becoming more conservative, even temporarily, is perceived to be a shield against threat. And that shield felt completely necessary to recover from 9/11. Just take a look at some of the headlines and news stories covering the attack (warning: some of these are graphic).

Unfortunately, this conservative mindset, driven by the desire to be safe, stable, to understand the environment around us, to take care of the threat, went awry too often in the wake of 9/11. In addition to the lives lost, I mourn the context 9/11 set for our country’s political and social agenda. The consequent nationalism bordering on jingoism. The Islamophobia. The justification for Weapons of Mass Destruction, later deemed to be false. The vigor with which we invaded Iraq; and a war that, 14 years later, many veterans who fought are ambivalent about its effectiveness (See Post 9/11 Veterans and their wars). At the time, I, too, supported President Bush’s actions. I believed we did need to go to war. America was hurting. My town was hurting. It was the only way! And I was surrounded by people who felt the same way, adults I trusted and respected. I know there were naysayers then, but I didn’t know them. My priority was to feel safe again.

So on this day, as a progressive anti-racist anti-war social psychologist, I reflect in the best way I know how. I feel pride in the way my hometown came together that fall. The way it honors its lost residents every September. I try to make sense of an event that rocked my foundation, whose subsequent events shaped my understanding of the world and my current identity. I don’t forget, but I also don’t accept the wrong that happened to many in the aftermath of that day. I try to be cognizant of the issues our country has now, as a result of 9/11 or independent of it. And I try to do my part, by working to understand the drivers of human behavior and sharing that knowledge. This blog is one means of that.

 


1, 3 – Jost , Glaser, Kruglanski, & Sulloway. (2003). Political conservatism as motivated social cognition. Psych Bulletin, 129, 339-375.

2 – Nail & McGregor. (2009). Conservative shift among liberals and conservatives following 9/11/01. Social Justice Research, 22, 231-240.

 

Brock Turner and the Masculine Identity: Perpetuating Rape Culture through Rape Myths

Brock Turner

Image from NY Daily News

On Friday, convicted rapist Brock Turner was released from jail after serving only 3 months of an incredibly lenient 6 month prison sentence for his rape of a woman attending a party. On January 18, 2015, two men witnessed Turner raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and held him until police arrived. Aaron Persky, the judge in the Turner case, decided to give Turner a light sentence, considering that a prison sentence would have a “severe impact” on the rapist (arguably the entire point of a prison sentence…). The case was widely regarded as evidence that rape is not taken seriously in legal proceedings, and that men still have difficulty understanding the significance of sexual assault. While Turner must register as a sex offender, he got the equivalent of a legal slap on the wrist for violently assaulting another person. As a woman, I am angry. But as a psychologist, I am unsurprised. Social psychologists have long known how juror perceptions of rape victims, as well as ideas regarding masculine identities, contribute to cases like Turner’s.

 

Sociologists and psychologists have explored the existence of “rape myths,” or complicated societal beliefs that essentially assert that women are “asking for it.”1 Acceptance of rape myths contributes to rape culture, and casts blame onto the victims of sexual crimes rather than onto the perpetrators. These rape myths are embraced so wholeheartedly that they are often seen in convicted rapists’ speech about their crime.2 Men who have been convicted of rape are more likely to see their crime as ambiguous, such that they believe there is room to interpret their crime as consensual sex.2 A man’s feelings about masculine gender roles also predicts his comfort with sexually coercive behavior, demonstrating that the more that men buy into toxic beliefs about masculinity, the more likely they are to engage in sexual assault.3 While rapists are usually men, rape is still perpetrated by a minority of men, and the men who commit the crime are often seen as social pariahs.4 Indeed, it appears that sex offenders have their own unique qualities. For instance, sex offenders are more likely to lack empathy, or the ability to identify with the experiences and emotions of others, which may contribute to their criminal attitudes.5 This may also explain why some men are comfortable with sexually coercive behavior, while many men are clearly not.

 

Unfortunately, rape victims must also face a biased court system, as the people involved in legal sentencing are likely swayed by their own perceptions of the victim’s behavior. Those perceptions, unbeknownst to jurors, are often created in part by the very rape myths that contributed to the assault in the first place. There is evidence, for instance, that rape victims that were intoxicated at the time of their assaults are less likely to be seen as credible and are more likely to be seen as deserving of rape by jurors.6 Mock jurors were also more likely to have negative evaluations of rape victims when the victim bought the drinks, as opposed to when the perpetrator bought the drinks, something that contributed to feelings of perpetrator guilt.7 This effect is similar to the finding that victims who willingly ingest substances are seen as “more to blame” than victims who ingested substances unwillingly.8 Interestingly enough, it is often a tactic for the rapist to use their own level of intoxication to excuse their actions, suggesting that they would have behaved differently if they had been sober. Research does support this to some degree, finding that the amount of alcohol ingested is positively related to the seriousness of the assault committed.9 Ironically, research also suggests that some men, particularly men who endorse rape myths, are more likely to buy women alcohol as a way of procuring sexual access through intoxication.10

 

Luckily, there are few people who commit these heinous acts, and, to some degree, they can be recognized by their personality traits. The “macho personality” is composed of characteristics like seeing violence as masculine and dangerous situations as thrilling. Men who possess these specific macho traits are more likely to behave violently and gravitate towards violence.11 It’s important to remember that no amount of alcohol can force someone to commit a violent act, even if Brock Turner’s friends and family think differently. It’s also important to consider the bigger picture: how ideas about masculinity and biased perceptions of victims contribute to both the formation of rapists and the perpetuation of rape culture. Rather than focusing on drinking on college campuses, we need to work to dispel rape myths that equate intoxication with sexual invitation.

 

  1. Payne, D.L., Lonsway, K.A., & Fitzgerald, L.F. (1999). Rape myth acceptance: Exploration of its structure and its measurement using the Illinois Rape Myth Acceptance Scale. Journal of Research in Personality, 33, 27-68.

 

  1. Lea, S. & Auburn, T. (2002). Feminism & Psychology: “The social construction of rape in the talk of a convicted rapist.” Women and Language, 25(2), 58.

 

  1. Truman, D.M., Tokar, D.M., & Fischer, A.R. (1996). Dimensions of masculinity: Relations to date rape supportive attitudes and sexual aggression in dating situations. Journal of Counseling and Development, 74(6), 555.

 

  1. Lee, P.C. (2003). Reason, rape and angst in behavioral studies. Science, 301(5631), 313.

 

  1. Marshall, W.L., Hudson, S.M., Jones, R., & Fernandez, Y.M. (1995). Empathy in sex offenders. Clinical Psychology Review, 15(2), 99-113.

 

  1. Wenger, A.A. & Bornstein, B.H. (2006). The Effects of victim’s substance use and relationship closeness on mock jurors’ judgments in an acquaintance rape case. Sex Roles, 54(7-8), 547-555.

 

  1. Lynch, K.R., Wasarhaley, N.E., Golding, J.M., & Simcic, T. (2013). Who bought the drinks? Juror Perceptions of intoxication in a rape trial. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(16), 3205-3222.

 

  1. Stewert, D.N. & Jacquin, K.M. (2010). Juror perceptions in a rape trial: Examining the complainant’s ingestion of chemical substances prior to sexual assault. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatmen,t & Trauma, 19(8), 853-874.

 

  1. Abbey, A., Clinton-Sherrod, A.M., McAusian, P., Zawacki, T., & Buck, P.O. (2003). The relationships between the quantity of alcohol consumed and the severity of sexual assaults committed by college men. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18(7), 813-833.

 

  1. Sanchez-Romero, M. (2010). Alcohol use as a strategy for obtaining nonconsensual sexual relations: Incidence in Spanish university students and relation to rape myths acceptance. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 13(2), 864-874.

 

  1. Zaitchik, MC. & Mosher, D.L. (1993). Criminal justice implications of the Macho personality constellation. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 20(3), 227-239.