GOP Anxiety: How Republicans work with worry

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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.

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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.

Public Prejudice: The alt-right doesn’t think you’re white

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Image from Quartz

I’m a quarter Russian. That quarter Russian is also Jewish, but it was handed down by my maternal grandfather. According to how Judaism is passed down, that makes me not Jewish. Well…to Jewish people. I was absolutely Jewish enough for Hitler. I’m what Hitler would have called a mixed-blood, or a mischling, someone who has both Aryan and Jewish ancestry. So even though I am not Jewish, neither of my parents are Jewish, and I’ve never even so much as been invited to a Bar Mitzvah or set foot in a synagogue, in Hitler’s Germany, I’m a Jew.

As we watched neo-nazis and the KKK marching in Charlottesville earlier this month, they weren’t chanting about the removal of statues or the snowflake-y nature of our current society, but they were chanting about Jews. It isn’t that surprising. We know that hate crimes against Jewish people have skyrocketed since Trump’s election. Someone even drew a swastika on a fence here in Durham North Carolina, a place that went almost 80% to Hillary Clinton. Racism, prejudice and discrimination have always been here. Trump didn’t invent them, even if he doesn’t do much to discourage them.

But something has shifted within me since Trump’s election. When I see these people marching with their torches, yelling about how they won’t be replaced by Jews, forehead veins popping with anger, I now feel like they are talking about me. And that’s good in a way. Because research shows that people who are primed to think about the differences between their group and another group actually increase their outgroup derogation.1 Or, in other words, we are more likely to look down on outgroups when we think of them as distinctly different from us. Thinking of ourselves as part of those groups decreases prejudice.

The way that we identify has a lot to do with how much we stand up for causes. Black people are the most active members of Black Lives Matter, because they are the direct targets of the current racial injustices in the legal system. The most visible LGBTQ activists have traditionally identified as LGBTQ themselves. Women are the most involved in securing access to women’s healthcare services, because they are the ones most in need of those healthcare services. It isn’t shocking or surprising that we don’t invest as much in outgroups as we do in our ingroups. Ask your next door neighbor if they’d rather feed their kids or yours given the choice.

Identity is a tricky thing. We often engage in self-presentation efforts, for instance, not wearing your KKK robes to work so your coworkers don’t hate you.2 So the impressions that you receive from someone may not be indicative of the way they truly feel. It may be a reflection of what they want you to see. This is something that the “alt-right” has embraced. When they held the march on Charlottesville, they didn’t look like a group of racist rednecks from the trailer park. They looked neat, well-groomed and well-dressed. That kind of self-presentation is like magic. They want you looking at the right hand so you don’t know what the left hand is doing. Sterilizing a message of hate with polo shirts doesn’t make it any less hateful.

Beyond self-presentation, self-concepts may or may not integrate all parts of one’s identity. That is unfortunate, as our self-concepts help to regulate our behavior.3 When we identify information as self-relevant, it is more likely to motivate us to act.3 Even though I am undoubtedly Jewish enough to be considered Jewish by the “blood and soil” crowd, I had never integrated that piece of my identity into my self-concept. I check the box for white on demographics questions, I am treated as white by people out in the world (i.e. I have white privilege) and when I buy face makeup, I buy one of the 3 lightest shades offered. Ostensibly, I am white. But to neo-nazis and the KKK, I’m not just not white, I’m subhuman. In fact, if you are not a protestant male of pure Aryan descent, the “alt-right” probably thinks you’re subhuman too.

Identity is pretty stable after a point. I won’t wake up tomorrow and decide that my morals and values have totally shifted and no longer recognize myself. But we can grow and change, integrating new ideas and roles into our self-concepts. The concept of identity integration suggests that perceiving an increase in compatibility between two seemingly disparate identities can increase performance on a variety of tasks.4 If we can integrate more parts of our identities, and see them as compatible with one another, we may be able to increase the amount of compassion and empathy we show to the people of color in our community. After all, that community is one of our ingroups.

In the wake of Charlottesville, white Americans have a choice. We hear the “alt-right” talking about immigrants, Jews, people of color and Catholics, and we can decide what we do with that information. We can say we are not part of those groups, and that we abhor white supremacy, but acknowledge it doesn’t really affect us personally. Or we can reevaluate our identities and realize that most of us are at least partial targets of these hate groups, whether we feel that way or not. To the alt-right, you probably ain’t white.

 

  1. Mummendey, A., Klink, A., & Brown, R. (2001). Nationalism and patriotism: National identification and out‐group rejection. British Journal of Social Psychology40(2), 159-172.
  2. Leary, M. R. (1995). Self-presentation: Impression management and interpersonal behavior. Brown & Benchmark Publishers.
  3. Markus, H., & Wurf, E. (1987). The dynamic self-concept: A social psychological perspective. Annual review of psychology38(1), 299-337.
  4. Rodriguez, E. M., & Ouellette, S. C. (2000). Gay and Lesbian Christians: Homosexual and Religious Identity Integration in the Members and Participants of a Gay‐Positive Church. Journal for the Scientific Study of religion39(3), 333-347.

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.

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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.

New Scarcity: Losing rights feels worse than gaining them feels good

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Image from NBC

People are naturally loss averse.1,2,3 It feels worse to lose $1,000 than it does to not win $1,000. It feels worse to have your house foreclosed on than to not be able to buy one.  It feels worse to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. So when it comes to civil rights, it isn’t surprising that people are more disturbed by new scarcity than they are by scarcity. Scarcity is so alluring it is one Robert Cialdini’s 6 principles of persuasion AND one of the most common sales techniques used to sell holiday themed sweater sets on QVC.4 Companies can utilize scarcity in all sorts of ways, from offering limited editions to selling one-of-a-kind products. They can even use new scarcity, by doing things like making products that were once available year-round only available seasonally. This creates an even larger demand than having something be scarce in the first place. Once people have had it and they can’t get it anymore, they want it more than ever.

In the wake of the November 8th election, protestors have gathered in cities all over America. Many are confused about the exact point of the protests. But the threat of new scarcity can go a long way to explaining the way people behave when they get a glimpse of what could be, only to face the threat (or reality) of being pushed back into what was. In my course on consumer psychology, I emphasize the significance of new scarcity through 1990s sitcoms. When older millennials were growing up in the 1990s, there were several mainstream television shows on major networks that featured all African-American casts. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, The Cosby Show, Family Matters, Hanging with Mr. Cooper, Sister, Sister…these were shows most people in America watched. They featured black families who were filthy rich, they featured black families who were highly educated, they featured black families with male role models who were police officers and educators.

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Image from Mental Floss

As the 2000s, and now the 2010s, march on, we have seen less and less of this kind of television. Yes, there are more shows available and less people watch the major networks when Netflix and Amazon are churning out some of the most popular shows these days. But at the same time, when we look at the networks, we have seen a return to “diverse” casts like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy composed of at least half white actors, and we have also seen a return to stereotypical portrayals of Black Americans as gang members, rappers and good dancers in shows like Empire, where many of the main characters have served time in jail. It’s new scarcity in action. And it’s crap.*

These days, TV executives doubt the viability of shows with all minority casts, arguing that white viewers don’t want to watch those shows. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None even tackles this issue specifically in an episode entitled Indians on TV. One wonders if these TV execs lived through the ‘90s, or if they witnessed America’s love for Bill Cosby prior to recent revelations about his serious failings as a person, TV dad and Jell-O salesman (how could you, Dr. Huxtable?). There used to be little doubt that Americans would watch a show with an all-Black cast. Now, we wonder if it’s “realistic” to cast African-American actors in all sorts of roles. It’s not a coincidence that the Ghostbusters remake features 3 white scientists and a black MTA worker. It’s a noticeable return to stereotyping African-Americans in the media that has come at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained steam.

I am not arguing in any way, shape or form that the fact that shows like Family Matters are no longer on air is the reason for the activism of the black community. But I am arguing that Black Americans have glimpsed the future many times in America only to lose it to the march of time. In 1870, congress passed the 15th Amendment guaranteeing American citizens of all races the right to vote. In 2016, black voter suppression has made a serious comeback, prompting one judge to say that black voters were being targeted in North Carolina “with almost surgical precision.” In 1994, Carl Winslow tells off some colleagues after they racially profile his son with no evidence in an episode of Family Matters called Good Cop, Bad Cop that highlights racial bias in the police force. In 2016, Terence Crutcher is killed by a police officer in Tulsa after his car breaks down for looking like a “bad dude.” The national conversation has rolled backwards. We have moved from a primetime television show casting a white cop as the villain, to having people say Black Lives Matter is a hate group, and having our President-elect endorse stop and frisk in Black neighborhoods. New scarcity is on the rise.

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Image from Mental Floss

For many Americans, the threat is losing rights they have already gained. LGBT Americans are worried about losing their right to marry, guaranteed in the Obergefell Supreme Court decision, or Trans kids’ right to use the bathroom that corresponds with their gender at their public school, guaranteed by Obama’s executive orders. Many women are worried about losing their right to control their bodies and their medical decisions, guaranteed by Roe v. Wade, something Mike Pence wants to see “consigned to the ash heap of history.” Many immigrants are worried about what will happen to family members who were protected as “Dreamers” under the Obama administration. New scarcity is scary, and rightfully so. Losing feels worse in magnitude than gaining feels good. And Americans have proven they won’t remain silent about it.

 

*Empire is an excellent show! As are Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy! I only use these as examples of newer shows that feature significant amounts of black cast members.

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

Good Germans: Authority and obedience make dangerous bedfellows

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Image of Eichmann’s trial from the Daily Beast

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

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

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Image of Milgram with his shock generator from Aeon

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

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

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

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

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Image from Pinterest

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

Black Votes Matter: Whitewashing the Election

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Image from the ACLU

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

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

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

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

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Image from the New York Times

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

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

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