The problem with seeing black men as bad dudes

1_Year_Commemoration_of_the_Murder_of_Michael_Brown,_the_Ferguson_Rebellion,_&_the_Black_Lives_Matter_uprising._(20426285322).jpg

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?

openDatapolicing.png

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/

 

Advertisements

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.

HAER NY-18-77

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.

 

Beyond the hate crime binary: Implicit bias in the Chapel Hill shooting

This post was co-written by Jen and guest blogger Cara, a city and regional planning student and social justice activist.

The recent triple murder of three Muslim Americans Yusor Abu-Salha, Deah Barakat, and Razan Abu-Salha in Chapel Hill on Tuesday night has rocked the Triangle, and its effects have reverberated across the globe. In addition to the devastating sadness and feelings of staggering unfairness precipitated by this horrific crime, the motive of the killer and whether the act was a hate crime is also being debated.

Craig Stephen Hicks, a 46 year old neighbor of Yusor, Deah, and Razan, has been charged with three counts of first degree murder after turning himself in to authorities. He and his lawyer claim that he killed them because of a parking dispute that escalated into violence, but a lot of people aren’t buying it. And neither are we.

Deah’s sister has asked that their murders be treated as a hate crime. Yusor and Razan’s brother believes the same. We also believe that this tragedy was motivated by anti-Muslim feelings and hate. This crime may not fit the legal definition of a hate crime, but that doesn’t preclude it from being one.

The debate over whether this fits the definition of a hate crime has to do with whether or not Hicks explicitly voiced his prejudice against Muslim people. His Facebook page has numerous posts where he mocks religion as an idea – Hicks is an adamant atheist – and a few where he calls out specific groups, such as a post calling Christians opposed to the building of a mosque near ground zero hypocritical, and another re-post that says if financial aid, mediation, and arms cannot bring peace to the Middle East, atheism can. But though he is a proud gun owner – he brags in one post about the weight of one of his loaded guns – he doesn’t seem to have expressed violent intentions toward Muslims specifically. The FBI is looking into it, but regardless of whether they find anything, the motivation seems to be clear.

Most people are more familiar with types of explicit prejudice or explicit bias. People who are explicitly prejudiced against Muslims, for example, know they are biased and may make statements to that effect or pointedly treat Muslim people differently than they would other people. This type of prejudice is also much less likely to be condoned in society. However, a deeper hidden kind of prejudice called implicit bias can guide people’s actions and thoughts even if they don’t consciously believe that they are biased.

Implicit bias is more likely what’s at play here. Implicit bias is an automatic stereotype or prejudice that someone maintains without necessarily being aware of it.1 Social psychologists have been studying implicit biases and their effects on behavior and society for years. These biases are so deeply ingrained and automatic that they often don’t reach the surface of consciousness, and yet may still guide our actions and behavior.2

Hicks’s wife claims that in her husband’s eyes “everyone is equal.” The fact that our implicit biases run so deep that we often aren’t even aware of them makes them particularly insidious, because here’s the thing: Hicks can genuinely believe that he didn’t target Deah, Yusor, and Razan because of their religion, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Even if he wasn’t thinking about the fact that his victims were Muslims in the front of his mind, somewhere in his brain, the automatic part was looping a tape full of subtle but powerful beliefs and stereotypes that more likely than not allowed this disagreement to escalate dramatically.

Some evidence does exist to suggest that Hicks wasn’t simply a grumpy disgruntled neighbor but was actually targeting this family because of their religion. Namely, one of Razan’s best friends stated that Hicks didn’t bother Deah at all until his new wife and her sister came to live with him, two women who looked more traditionally Muslim with their hijabs than did Deah. Deah and Yusor’s relatives also offered previous incidents where Hicks threatened Deah and Yusor over their alleged noisiness while carrying his shotgun. Would he have approached these situations in the same way had Deah, Yusor, and Razan not been Muslim? Our guess is no.

There is no way to prove that implicit biases motivated or fed this crime, which feels incredibly frustrating. It also forebodes an increased misunderstanding if the families of the victims and the community at large see a hate crime here, but authorities cannot prove it. We believe that it is essential to get a discussion of not just explicit hate speech and discrimination but an understanding of implicit biases as well into the societal dialogue—implicit bias can also likely help to explain the Mike Brown shooting and other crimes across racial and cultural lines committed by people who swear they “see everyone equally.”

So, how does this directly affect you, and what can you do in your own life? Most implicit biases are on a smaller minor scale. They don’t result in a triple homicide, but that doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Every implicit bias affects people’s daily interactions. If you’ve ever taken a social psychology class, you’ve likely learned about the Implicit Association Test (or the IAT). The IAT is a free online test that allows anyone to measure their own implicit biases for all different groups ranging from race to age to sexual orientation. I encourage all of you to take it here. Note that the IAT has its own flaws—it is not to be used as a diagnostic tool. If the test finds that you have a preference for white people over black people, you are not destined to be a racist. Rather, such a result indicates several possible outcomes: 1) you are implicitly biased against black people, 2) you are aware of the bias against black people in the society where you’ve grown up, which is reflected in your result, or 3) some combination of the two.

Despite the imperfection of the IAT, its results can offer some insight into your psyche. This awareness is just the beginning. Start by taking the IAT, see what comes up. Then get comfortable with the idea that your very own brain may harbor implicit biases toward one or more groups. Especially if you are a person who says you “see everyone equally” or some such platitude, question the meanings behind your snap reactions or judgments of others. Try to notice patterns or be more deliberate in your interactions with others. Research exists to support the idea that people can change their automatic beliefs3, so your efforts will likely not be in vain.

In no way whatsoever is this discussion intended to relieve Hicks of any guilt or to place blame on any of his victims. Rather, it’s to suggest that the current definition of a hate crime requiring explicit prejudicial statements is outdated and too simplistic given what we know about implicit biases. Furthermore, understanding implicit biases can help us get past the racist vs. not-racist narrative and understand that people do what they do for much more complicated reasons than they themselves might even realize.


 

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 Monteith, Ashburn-Nardo, Voils, & Czopp (2002). Putting the brakes on prejudice: On the development and operation of cues for control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 1029-1050.

The Salem Witch Trials: Groupthink at its worst

In honor of Halloween and all things occult, I wanted to explore a historical event I was morbidly fascinated with as a child: the Salem Witch Trials. When I was younger, I couldn’t get my hands on enough novels and non-fiction books on the subject. I read The Crucible and watched the movie, and I was also fortunate enough to have relatives who lived in Salem, MA, so I got to visit most years around Halloween. While in Salem, I would walk through the cemeteries where the alleged witches had been laid to rest and read their tombstones. These ancient tombstones actually listed the method used to kill the accused. I remember being completely engrossed in the event the more I learned about it—I couldn’t get past the swiftness of the accusations, the unfairness of the trials, the conformity, and the upturned power hierarchy of the Salem community. I didn’t necessarily think of it in those specific terms at the time, but in retrospect, my nascent social psychological wheels were turning.

What exactly happened during the Salem Witch Trials? What perpetuated the mass hysteria? Why did it take so long to stop?

Lithograph of Salem Witch Trials, 1892, by Joseph Baker

Actually, research on groupthink suggests that what happened in Salem Village* wasn’t all that unusual; terrible, yes, but surprising? Perhaps not. A few factors combined to allow for the perfect storm of the Salem Trials.

Groupthink1 is a way of thinking characterized by an excessive emphasis on group cohesion and solidarity. Often, group harmony is prioritized over making an accurate judgment, allowing for important information to be ignored. Groupthink is most likely to occur when the group is highly cohesive, isolated, stressed, has poor decision-making procedures, and a forceful leader. Nearly all of these factors existed in Salem Village during the winter of 1692, the time leading up to and including the witch trials.

Highly cohesive group and group isolation. The Salem villagers were Puritans, tightly knit together by their religious beliefs, including fear of the Devil’s work. Because of their religious convictions, recent attacks by Native Americans, and tension with the wealthier Salem Town, the Salem villagers were distrustful of outsiders, leaving them to rely primarily on each other for support.

Forceful leader. Reverend Samuel Parris, the first ordained minister of Salem Village, ruled strictly and was known for his greedy nature. Editorial note: he doesn’t seem like the type of person who would allow people to speak their mind.

High stress. The 1692 winter was a particularly harsh one, which strained Salem Village’s resources and increased their reliance on Salem Town. Adding to the strain was a number of displaced people from King William’s War, who landed in Salem Village, and a smallpox epidemic.

Poor decision-making. The trial process, a term I use loosely, allowed testimony about dreams and visions to be included, despite opposition from the respected minister Cotton Mather; likely, his voice just wasn’t loud enough to stop the momentum yet. Female children as young as four years old who were connected to accused older women, like Dorothy Good, daughter of Sarah Good, were questioned and thought to have confessed. These are just a few of the ways in which poor decision-making was employed.

So, the groundwork was there. And when groupthink emerged, it did so violently with all of its accompanying symptoms:

Belief in the moral correctness of the group. Need I remind you that these were deeply religious people? They prayed every day and considered themselves to be the elect. In other words, they believed they had been predestined for heaven, chosen uniquely by the God they believed in. As K. David Goss put it in Daily Life during the Salem Witch Trials, their Puritan faith was all-encompassing. These religious beliefs contributed to a lot of self-censorship and the pressure to conform, particularly among women, who were expected to aspire to the ideal virtuous woman as described in the bible (see Goss’s book for more). This pressure to conform and to limit personal beliefs likely increased significantly once accusations were being made, lest someone turn an accusation on someone who dared to speak her mind.

Considering the ripening groupthink conditions of the stressed and isolated place of Salem Village, the mass hysteria and frenzy of the Salem Witch Trials wasn’t completely unexpected, at least in hindsight. That it can be explained doesn’t detract from the horror, death, and upheaval that occurred. And community members of Salem did eventually put a stop to the madness, perhaps because the stress was unsustainable and damaged the group cohesiveness. The diminished cohesiveness may have allowed an opening for some powerful community members to feel comfortable enough to speak up. A public apology was eventually made in 1697 by Judge Sewall, who had overseen many of the trials, but it was too little, too late. Groupthink had left a permanent mark.

Groupthink can, and does, occur today, too. It can be avoided by having an impartial leader, being willing to seek outside opinions, creating subgroups to make decisions separately, and seeking anonymous opinions.2


*The place where the witch trials occurred was actually Salem Village, present-day Danvers, and was established several miles from Salem Town, now present-day Salem. See http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/Witch.html for more information.

1,2  Janis, I.L. (1972). Victims of groupthink: A psychological study of foreign policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Face Off: Beauty is not always better

Image from ABC News

         Image from ABC News

Since Renee Zellweger attended the Elle Awards on Monday, I’ve seen several news articles about her “unrecognizable” face. As other outlets have noted, people seem to be surprised that Zellweger is no longer the spunky 20 year old she was in Jerry McGuire, or that she would turn to cosmetic enhancements to preserve her beauty. But really, it’s not very surprising. Being beautiful is pretty complex for women. A meta-analysis headed by Alice Eagly found consistent evidence that people ascribe more positive traits and life outcomes to attractive people.1 But other research found that men benefitted from being handsome across hiring situations, but that women only benefitted from being attractive if they were applying for a non-managerial position.2 More troubling, social comparison theory has been applied to the link between thinness pressure and bulimic symptoms.3 There is, however, evidence that getting facial plastic surgery can help increase self-esteem.4 Since we know how influential beauty is, we shouldn’t be shaming any celebrities or peers about their physical shortcomings, or attempts to correct them.

  1. Eagly, A. H., Ashmore, R. D., Makhijani, M. G., & Longo, L. C. (1991). What is beautiful is good, but…: A meta-analytic review of research on the physical attractiveness stereotype. Psychological Bulletin, 110(1), 109-128.
  2. Heilman, M. E., & Saruwatari, L. R. (1979). When beauty is beastly: The effects of appearance and sex on evaluations of job applicants for managerial and nonmanagerial jobs. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 23(3), 360-372.
  3. Irving, L. M. (1990). Mirror images: Effects of the standard of beauty on the self-and body-esteem of women exhibiting varying levels of bulimic symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 9(2), 230-242.
  4. Arndt, E. M., Travis, F., Lefebvre, A., Niec, A., & Munro, I. R. (1986). Beauty and the eye of the beholder: Social consequences and personal adjustments for facial patients. British Journal of Plastic Surgery, 39(1), 81-84.

It’s a Psych, Sad World: Ray Rice Elevator Video

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 7.23.19 PM

Still image captured from TMZ video footage.

Early last week, a video was released of NFL player Ray Rice knocking his wife out in an elevator, moments before he dragged her unconscious body across a hotel lobby. Many people are quick to point out that Janay Rice doesn’t consider herself a victim, and that she married him after the incident occurred. Still more say she would have left him if he was really abusive. But research shows that people in abusive relationships stay for complex reasons. Rusbult and Martz demonstrated that women who were more invested in their relationships were more likely to return to their abusive partner (1). Dutton and Painter showed evidence for traumatic bonding theory: the idea that intermittent abuse creates extremely strong attachments (2). And Strube and Barbour demonstrated that both commitment level and economic dependence are related to decisions to stay or leave (3). With overwhelming scientific evidence, we know that combining love and violence is rarely black and white.

 

(1) Rusbult, C.E., & Martz, J.M. (1995). Remaining in an abusive relationship: An investment model analysis of nonvoluntary dependence. Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin, 21(6), 558-571.

(2) Dutton, D.G., & Painter, S. (1993). Emotional attachments in abusive relationships: A test of traumatic bonding theory. Violence and Victims, 8(2), 105-120.

(3) Strube, M.J., & Barbour, L.S. (1983). The decision to leave an abusive relationship: Economic dependence and psychological commitment. Journal of Marriage and Family, 45(4), 785-793.