GOP Anxiety: How Republicans work with worry

wall

Picture from Slate

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Million March NYC

From Google Image

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

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

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

From Google Image

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

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

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

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


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

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

Conformity: Standing up means standing out

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Image of Asch experiment from Simply Psychology

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

asch_conformity

Image from Age of the Sage

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

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

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

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

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

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.

cory-make-it-stop

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.

2016 APA gif.png

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.

mindful-breathing

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.

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.

Wild horses: Harnessing your love intensity

iloveyou

For a few months after it was published in January 2015, Mandy Len Catron’s article “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” about the 36 questions to increase intimacy seemed to be everywhere. People shared it all over Twitter and Facebook, sometimes cynically, other times hopefully. This article and these questions, originally from a 1997 article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin claimed to have (at least) a partial solution to the time-old question: Can you choose who you love? Catron shared her experience testing these questions with a stranger, who she ultimately fell in love with and was dating by the time the article was published.

More broadly, this article raises a fair question and an intriguing proposition: maybe we can control the choice of who we love. Or, perhaps, more specifically, we can cultivate the strength of our love for a person. A recent study by Langeslag and van Strien (2016)[1] found that, in fact, love may be less like a light switch and more like a volume setting. volumeIn other words, people likely have the capacity to change the intensity of their love for someone. And there’s an upside to that, of course. As a relationship evolves, it takes on a new depth leading to greater feelings of intimacy and more intense love. But sometimes—often—it doesn’t. People break up. They fall out of love. Sometimes, you love what you can’t have. What then? Who hasn’t been in a situation where they were on the receiving end of inadequate love or where they couldn’t reciprocate the love someone else had for them? Regardless of the position, it’s often devastating.

What do I mean by love? To those who are currently in love, especially in the beginning stages, it defies explanation. It just IS. But love has been defined and measured in many ways. For this study, Langeslag and van Strien focus on two components of romantic love: infatuation (i.e., passion, attraction) and attachment (emotional bonding or intimacy). They recruited 40 participants, half of whom were currently in a romantic relationship and the other half of whom had recently experienced a break-up. People viewed 30 pictures of their partner (or ex-partner) for four rounds while an EEG recorded their brain activity. In the last two rounds, they were asked to use reappraisal (i.e., reinterpreting a situation to change its emotional meaning) when viewing each picture. Most importantly, people who had recently been through a break-up were instructed to use reappraisal to decrease their feelings of love by focusing on negative aspects of the ex-partner or the relationship (e.g., “We fight a lot” or “She’s lazy”). In contrast, participants currently in a relationship used reappraisal to increase their love feelings (e.g., “She’s so funny” or “We’ll get married someday”). People also recorded their levels of infatuation and attachment to their (ex-)partners before and after the EEG. It should also be noted that these participants reported feeling that love was uncontrollable.

Perhaps not surprisingly, people who viewed pictures of their exes who used negative reappraisal reported feeling less infatuated and less attached after the images than before. People who used positive reappraisal of their current partners reported higher feelings of infatuation and attachment. And, most convincingly, EEG reports corresponded with these self-reports. In other words, people weren’t just telling the researchers what they wanted to hear or were tricking themselves into thinking they were less heartbroken or more in love than was true. The pattern of brain activity suggested these shifts in thinking were genuine. Now was this a permanent fix? That’s less likely, but there’s no reason to suggest that cognitive reappraisal is a tool that can’t be used in a person’s life just like it was used in a lab setting.

The implications, of course, are encouraging. Using cognitive reappraisal to decrease love intensity after a break-up can speed folks along in the recovery process. For people in long-term relationships, where it’s natural for infatuation or even attachment to fade over time[2], cognitive reappraisal may be a useful tool in maintaining feelings of love. And sure, there are some relationship that aren’t meant to last for a variety of reasons. However, this study suggests that regardless of whether you’re newly single or attached, you possess the capacity to train your brain to feel better. How’s that for a happy ending?

otters

Otters mate for life. No love regulation needed.


[1] Langeslag & van Strien. (2016). Regulation of romantic love feelings: Preconceptions, strategies, and feasibility. PLoS One, 11, 1-29.

[2] Langeslag, Muris, & Franken. (2013). Measuring romantic love: Psychometric properties of the Infatuation and Attachment Scales. The Journal of Sex Research, 50, 739-747.

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.