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.

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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.

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.

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.

Trump supporters have an attitude problem: The psychology of attitude change

In light of the latest scandal to plague Donald Trump (if you haven’t seen the video, it’s here), non-Trump supporters right now are wondering how people can actually continue to support this man. Prominent Republicans, including RNC chairman Reince Priebus, have publicly denounced Trump’s recent comments about “grabbing a woman’s pussy.” To them, I ask, what took so long? To his existing supporters, I ask, how can you continue to support him?

But I know how they can.

hard-way-easy-wat

Attitude change is a tricky thing. Attitudes are comprised of an ABC of sorts: varying amounts of affective (based on emotions and values), behavioral (based on people’s observations of their behavior toward something), and cognitive (based on thoughts or beliefs) components. And trying to change a person’s attitude requires knowing which components make up that attitude. Attitude change is more likely when persuasive messages match the attitude type [1]. In other words, attempting to change a person’s cognitive-based attitude is more likely to be successful when the message appeals to a person’s rational thought and logic. Similarly, using an emotional appeal to a person with an affective-based attitude is likely to be more persuasive. The catch here is that emotions are, well, emotional and inherently non-objective. So, in the case of fear-based attitudes, which characterizes most of Trump’s supporters, trying to change their minds by too much fear is also ineffective. Fear-based change messages that are too strong backfire and lead the target person (or persons, in this case) to become overwhelmed, tune out, and lose the ability to think rationally about the topic at hand [2] [3].

20151210_edcartoon_640px_1449787495799_28217634_ver1-0_640_480-trumpWhich is why well-intentioned Clinton supporters or progressives who use cognitive-based attitudes fail to persuade Trump supporters. It’s why progressives who resort to fear, as in “Trump will start a nuclear war!” (could he? It’s possible), come up against a brick wall with Trump supporters. For many of them, their support of Trump is not cognitively-based, so that appeal won’t work. It’s why telling them Donald Trump is flat out lying to them A LOT doesn’t mean a thing. And fear-based appeals come on too strong and too intense–likely because Trump opponents are legitimately terrified of a Trump presidency given his incompetence and xenophobia, racism, misogyny, etc.–so those certainly don’t work, either.

Something else is likely going on here: the inoculation effect. Attitude inoculation acts in essentially the same way as vaccines and other inoculations: “attitude inoculation is making people immune to attempts to change their attitudes by initially exposing them to small doses of the arguments against their position”[4]. Does that sound familiar? Trump supporters have been exposed to “attacks” on him and questions about his character, his integrity, his competence since he first announced his candidacy and in the process offended millions of Latinos throughout the country. And each successive “attack” on Trump (note how I’m using quotations because these attacks are, nearly without exception, justified and truthful revelations) is actually strengthening “Support Trump” attitudes.

This, of course, is not true without exception. Certainly there have been Trump supporters who no longer supported him after successive gaffes, especially after this latest one. By and large, however, Trump has maintained a steady percentage of Americans who stand by him (about 32%), seemingly no matter what; this support has been even higher among certain demographics. How else can that be explained than by decades of research on attitude change?

party-crasher-trumpOf course, the presidency is much higher stakes than a typical attitude change situation.
Additional factors are at play, like the crumbling and divided GOP, who can’t decide what to do with Trump. This latest might finally be the blow that pressures Trump to withdraw (although he claims there is “zero chance I’ll quit”). If he does, however, he’ll do so to the dismay and sadness of his ever-present fearful supporters.

 

 


[1] Shavitt. (1990). The role of attitude objects in attitude function. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26, 124-148.

[2] Janis & Feshbach. (1953). Effects of fear-arousing communications. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 49, 78-92.

[3] Liberman & Chaiken. (1992). Defensive processing of personally relevant health messages. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18, 669-679.

[4] Aronson, Wilson, & Akert. (2013). Attitudes and attitude change. In Social Psychology (164-195) (8th ed.).

Who do you think you are? What your social media posts say about you

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Are you someone who posts political opinions and articles on Facebook? Some of you are emphatically scoffing right now—Facebook is not the place for it! Not going to change anyone’s minds! Others of you are boldly declaring, of course you do! I am often in the latter group, sometimes sheepishly so, but not always.

Why do we post such articles on Facebook? Maybe we truly believe that we can reach even one person who didn’t understand why “All Lives Matter” is offensive or who hadn’t considered that Hillary is relatively honest, as politicians go. Certainly, this could be the case. But, as with anything we do, the explanation is probably more complicated than that. It’s also likely that people post political articles and share opinions on hot button topics to portray a certain image of themselves. An image that says, I am not ignorant. I am a liberal/conservative/independent/Christian/atheist/fill-in-the-blank. I care about these issues because I am a compassionate good person.

facebook-gif-2The articles we post are a proxy of who we are, a strategic presentation of self, a way to shape others’ thoughts and assumptions about us.1 How many times have you or someone you know unfriended someone because of something they shared or said on Facebook? These intended perceptions are not necessarily false or distorted. In the examples above, the person posting may legitimately be a liberal compassionate good person. Wanting others to see that and taking care so that they do is not false. Furthermore, strategic self-presentation on Facebook or any social media, for that matter, is not constrained to the political domain, although the election makes this post oh so timely.

What are people trying to convey when they share on social media? Jones and Pittman (1982) offer several strategies people use to manage others’ impressions of them:

  1. Ingratiation: the most common form of self-presentation. We want others to like us, but we can’t be too obvious about it. An ingratiating post has an ulterior motive of wanting those who read it to like you because you posted it, but the post isn’t going to indicate that explicitly. This strategy usually has an intended target audience in mind. Maybe you posted an article about Hillary Clinton because you want your new friends who are Hillary supporters to see it.
  1. Intimidation: this type of self-presentation is the opposite of #1. The person posting is uninterested in being liked. They want to convey power and potential to be dangerous (think Men’s Rights Activists who harass women on the internet). This type of post is most problematic for people who are stuck with the person who posted it, like a family member. Others can simply (usually) ignore the jerk.
  1. Self-promotion: We all know this type of post. It’s self-focused, whether explicitly or not. The goal is usually to elicit feelings of competence or attractiveness. An additional component is that the information in such a post can’t contradict anything else known about the person, or else perceived competence is diminished.
  1. Exemplification: Similar to self-promotion, exemplification posts aim for the audience to perceive the poster as moral and of high integrity. Note that this is not mutually exclusive from #3. Who doesn’t want to be seen as moral and likable? Of course, this post backfires if not seen as sincere or authentic.

Again, these strategies don’t necessarily exist independently of each other (see #3 and #4). And exceptions exist, as is the case with extreme emotion, like anger or joy, which can propel people to share updates or articles on Facebook without an underlying self-presentation strategy. Much of the time, however, posts can be categorized into one of the above 4 strategies.

 

Happy Facebooking!

 


1  Jones & Pittman. (1982). Toward a general theory of strategic self-presentation. Psychological perspectives on the self, 231-262.

Psych in Sum : Debates and body language 101

clinton-trump

talkingpointsmemo.com

Tonight’s debate is expected to have 100 million viewers—more than any other presidential debate in history. While you’re watching, don’t just listen to what’s said. Watch the body language and delivery style of each candidate and keep the following in mind:

Carli, LaFleur, and Loeber (1995) examined four delivery styles of male or female speakers to determine how persuasive and well-received these styles were by male and female participants.

 Dominant: loud voice, angry tone, points intrusively at other person, maintains almost constant eye contact with other person, stern facial expression

Submissive: soft, pleading voice with verbal hesitations and stumbles, slumped posture, nervous hand gestures¸ averted gaze

Social: voice of moderate volume, relaxed posture with body leaning toward listener, friendly facial expression, moderately high amount of eye contact

Task: rapid speech, upright posture, moderately high eye contact while speaking, few vocal hesitations or stumbles, calm hand gestures

Participants rated these speakers on their competence, level of power (How powerful? Influential? Persuasive?), likeability (how likeable? Friendly? Group-oriented? Trustworthy?), and the extent to which they seemed threatening (How threatening? Condescending? Intimidating?).

Key findings:

  • Dominant style was perceived to be more powerful and influential but NOT more competent and certainly not more likeable. In fact, speakers exhibiting a dominant style, regardless of their gender, were equally disliked by male and female audiences.
  • Male and female speakers using social style were perceived to be the most competent, sociable, friendly and likable.
  • Relatedly, competence was deemed to be equally important for male and female speakers of both audiences. However, likeability was more important for male audiences of female speakers. In other words, female speakers for male audiences must be competent and likeable, whereas male speakers for male audiences only need to be competent. Female audiences showed no difference for male and female speakers.

 

Does this change how you watch the debate tonight?


Carli, LaFleur, & Loeber. (1995). Nonverbal, behavior, gender, and influence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 68, 1030-1041.

 

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.

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.