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.
Advertisements

Magnifying the message: A change for SocialPsyQ

We did it again. Stopped posting on SocialPsyQ and left our dear readers in the lurch. We’d like to say it was because we have been passing major educational and career milestones (which we have been; Mallory is officially ABD and Jen got a fancy new job), but in reality, we’ve been a bit stumped since November. It was never our intention to make SocialPsyQ a political blog. Our goal has always been to highlight how social psychology affects our real lives, and to apply the discipline we love outside of the classroom. We recognize that people of all political stripes are interested in such exercises, and we aim to present psychological findings with as little personal bias as possible. But since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president by calling most Mexican immigrants racists, drug smugglers and criminals, SocialPsyQ’s content has taken on a decidedly more political bent.

Trump2

Picture from CBS News

To be honest, it’s been difficult to write blog entries about resisting ad messages in the face of the constant stream of negative news from the White House. It feels hollow and disingenuous to write about cute aggression or how ovulating strippers make more money than menstruating ones when one tweet from our president could bring us closer to nuclear war. And it feels irresponsible and cowardly to not use this platform to shed light on the incredibly serious issues plaguing our time, as opposed to persuasion tactics or the science of pregnancy cravings.

 

As white women, we recognize the privilege we have to remove ourselves from the struggles of Americans of color. Though we have strived to write about racial injustice quite a bit, we both know that we could and should be doing more to speak out against racism and white supremacy, both in our personal lives and at SocialPsyQ. After seeing a torch wielding mob of angry white nationalists and neo-Nazis holding a town hostage to their racist ideals this past weekend—just the latest and most brazen assault on people of color and Jewish people—we are determined to use SocialPsyQ to help educate our fellow citizens about the underlying motivations, implicit biases, stereotypes and prejudices, societal factors and learning that influence such behavior.

Vigil

Charlottesville vigil picture from NPR

So, we’re still the SocialPsyQ you know and love. We’re still going to be here using social psychology as a lens to look at current events, social trends and personal attitudes. We’re just going to focus on the most salient events, trends and attitudes. Unfortunately, in the past year, that has lent itself to an increasing focus on the Trump administration and the Alt-Right. As progressives, we are motivated to examine multiple sides of an issue, to recognize the gray in between the black and white, and to refrain from making stereotypes about entire groups. As social psychologists, we know that human behavior is complex, that groups often elicit extremism and that personal motivation is often ambiguous. We intend to incorporate all of these perspectives as we lovingly, but rigorously, explore the social psychology behind the turbulent times we live in.

 

Thanks for reading,

Mallory and Jen

Anger: An emotional Trump card

davidson-trump-nevada-1200.jpg

Image from The New Yorker

It’s safe to say that the outcome of the last night’s presidential election was unexpected. Most polls showed Hillary Clinton with a solid lead for months prior to the election, and many pundits on the right and left had basically handed the victory to Clinton. But, in the light of day, we are faced with President-Elect Trump, and it has come with a significant amount of anger, both leading up to the election, and in its aftermath. Many Americans are afraid; many are truly feeling the meaning of the words “underrepresented group.” As per usual, there are talks of secession, both from states like California who went overwhelmingly for Clinton, handing her the popular vote. And, of course, there are obviously many who rejoice at this outcome, though many psychologists would say that their anger about their relative positions in society is what fueled this victory in the first place.

Anger is its own special kind of thing when it comes to emotion. Most positive emotions, like happiness and delight are approach emotions, meaning that you move towards experiences, things and people that elicit these kinds of emotional states. You are definitely going to move towards that adorable puppy, or that day at the beach. On the other hand, most negative emotions, like fear or shame, are avoidant emotions. We tend to fold into ourselves when we feel negatively, we remove ourselves from situations and from others. There is actually only one negative emotion that is approach oriented: Anger.1 That’s why people fight each other, yell at each other and tear their shirts off when someone challenges them at a tense football game. And man, voters all over American are obviously pretty peeved, albeit for different reasons. I’m glad the Super Bowl isn’t for a few months or we’d be seeing a lot of white beer bellies.

Anger is a universal emotion.2 People in every culture all over the world are hard wired to recognize anger in others, since, you know, it might be directed at us and it is fairly useful to notice that, survival-wise. In many ways, emotions are evolutionarily useful, someone’s face of surprise will tip us off to impending danger before they can produce words to tell us. But they also affect the way we think. The more intense the emotion, the less logical we are.3 That’s why we make dumb decisions when we are infatuated with an unsuitable love interest, or why we say that we “see red” when we are really angry. Added to that, high emotions are likely to evoke system 1 thinking, in which people make decisions based on mental shortcuts, instead of system 2 thinking, in which people methodically compare all alternatives.4 Anger basically creates an emotional version of cognitive load. Anger occupies so much of our thought processes that we don’t have enough attention left over to make good choices. Really. This is a thing.

There are different factors governing the anger expression on the right and on the left. On the right, I believe we are experiencing something similar to the backlash against Bush in 2000. Researchers found that Americans are more likely to back the candidate they see as less “corrupt,” and in the Bush v. Gore matchup, Bush was the political insider whose own father had been president. Voters who viewed this as nepotism cast their ballots for Gore or Nadar.5 For people on the left, many are angry that we are still experiencing serious gender, racial, sexual preference and income inequality and it only seems to matter to a portion of the population. On both sides, people tend to react with anger when they feel that they have behaved the right way, but that others have taken success from them.6 For republicans, a lot of the anger appears to center around the idea that undocumented immigrants are taking American jobs and sowing seeds of terrorism. For democrats, much of it appears to center around the idea that a majority of white people are still able to dictate the state of our union.

Sadly, many of us will be angry for a bit. And that’s okay. But we can choose to wallow in a sense of helplessness, and to mourn the loss of our country to more powerful forces of isolationism and fear than we thought. Or we can choose to get pissed. We can choose to let that angry energy fuel our movement to make America a more tolerant place. To pose a serious, noisy challenge to legislators who seek to pass laws that do not represent us. To protest when the powers that be attempt to shove their opinions and their values down the throats of the American people. To get involved in elections on the local level. To know who our representatives are and what they stand for. To join in races ourselves, and bring our own views into the conversation. The fact is, the presidential election is over. Donald Trump will be our president. We can choose to flee to Canada and lick our wounds, hoping the electorate magically changes in four years. Or we can get pissed enough to stand together and choose to fight.

  1. Carver, C. S., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2009). Anger is an approach-related affect: evidence and implications. Psychological bulletin135(2), 183.
  2. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of personality and social psychology17(2), 124.
  3. Pham, M. T. (2007). Emotion and rationality: A critical review and interpretation of empirical evidence. Review of general psychology11(2), 155.
  4. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.
  5. Redlawsk, D. P., & McCann, J. A. (2005). Popular interpretations of ‘corruption’and their partisan consequences. Political Behavior27(3), 261-283.
  6. Huddy, L., Sears, D. O., & Levy, J. S. (Eds.). (2013). The Oxford handbook of political psychology. Oxford University Press.

 

 

Black Votes Matter: Whitewashing the Election

download (1).jpeg

Image from the ACLU

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

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

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

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

30voting-tmagarticle

Image from the New York Times

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

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

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

Psych in Sum: Low information voter or cognitive miser?

vote.jpg

Image from CNN

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

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

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

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

Warmth and Competence: Ambivalent Sexism keeps Women out of Politics

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

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

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

 

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

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.).