Watching current events in the United States these past few weeks, I find myself thinking often of some of the most basic Social Psychology 101 lessons. Even though we’ve gotten much more sophisticated in our research, these foundational lessons describe some of the behavior among American people quite well. Understanding these dynamics, and more importantly, understanding how we can break through them, might be helpful for all of us as we try to move forward.
I know my own political preferences aren’t a secret, but I have no desire to turn this space into a political one. I’m going to try to describe the psychological principles that I’m seeing play out now without too overtly tagging one side or the other (and I do think both sides have room to grow and change). That said, I’m not willing to gloss over racism or hate crimes when I see them and so some of my language may reflect that.
In-group vs. Out-group Polarization
What it is: In the 1950s, a psychologist was studying the behavior of boys in a summer camp (Robbers Cave). The boys were broken randomly into two teams, the Eagles and the Rattlers, with whom they competed in sports and other camp activities. As days went by, competition between the two groups grew fiercer and each group developed strong in-group preferences and negative out-group attitudes. We like the people who are part of our group, and we dislike the people who are not.
These sorts of in-group preferences don’t need a week away at camp to form. Research has found they can be triggered by silly groupings like “Klee or Kandinsky preferences.” As politics has taught us all time and again, they can also be formed as a result of political affiliations and candidate preferences. We tend to think of those like us positively, and demonize those who aren’t.
Why it matters today: After a presidential election, we typically look for a peaceful transition of power and a resumption of legislative business. That’s made difficult if members of sparring political parties can’t commit to collaboration. It’s exacerbated when members of one party are unwilling to disavow extreme behavior by their candidate (see cognitive dissonance, below), as this intensifies the in-group/out-group perceptions on both sides.
What we can do about it: There are a few things we can do to soften the in-group/out-group divide. One is to look for commonalities with the other group. This is easiest to do in our daily lives. If you have a family member or a coworker who voted differently from you, chances are you have many things in common with them outside of politics. Nourishing those aspects of your relationship, hard as it may be with raw emotions, is a step in healing the intergroup rift.
Another tactic backed by research is uniting against a common enemy. As scary as it is given the role of a free press in American society, right now one candidate is the media, whose coverage seems biased and dishonest to people on both sides of the political spectrum. Perhaps a more productive common enemy might be values-based. Can we look for ways to talk about values like safety and prosperity that resonate across political viewpoints, and join forces against anything threatening them?
Sherif, M. (1956). Experiments in group conflict. In E. Aronson (ed.), Readings About the Social Animal, 344-353.
Tajfel, H. & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations. Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole .
What it is: Cognitive dissonance refers to our psychological needs for consistency with regards to our own identities. We don’t like to perceive ourselves as hypocrites. Early research on cognitive dissonance showed that you could change people’s attitudes and behaviors by getting them to make public statements in support of an issue (e.g. recycling).
Cognitive dissonance also leads people to be less receptive to information that contradicts existing beliefs, especially if they have behaved in a certain way because of those beliefs. Learning you may be wrong is emotionally painful, and that is more so if you’ve really stood for those beliefs.
Why it matters today: If you publicly campaigned for a particular candidate, it can be especially difficult to then disagree with specific actions or statements that candidate makes. This is more true the more hard-line you were in your campaign efforts. Disagreeing with the candidate suggests you were wrong (even if rationally you know that it is possible to support a candidate without supporting all of his or her actions and ideas). To avoid the discomfort of changing minds, we sometimes just don’t. We may also avoid information that suggests we were wrong, or seek ways to discredit it.
What we can do about it: Resist the urge to be a jerk to people. Facts and information are important, but they are not a first line weapon in trying to change the mind of someone who has firm convictions about something. Rather, approach the conversation at an angle (this is a good resource to help). If someone says something you feel is untrue or unfair, ask why they think that. You can ask if you can share a different perception and offer your points, gently.
If it makes sense and works with your style, you can also try to offer ways for a person to change their minds but still be consistent. For example, can you say something like “Wow, you really care a lot about changing the status quo. Does it bother you to see a lot of the same old faces in the new administration?” This opens the door for the person to disagree with their candidate without feeling as conflicted. It may not work, but it’s more likely to than an outright attack.
Persuasion about deeply emotional topics can take time–months or years. You may find you make little progress in any single conversation. That’s ok. Just keep on not being a jerk and having that conversation from an angle.
Festinger, L. (1962). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford University Press.
Mullainathan, S., & Washington, E. (2009). Sticking with your vote: Cognitive dissonance and political attitudes. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 1(1), 86-111.
The Bystander Effect
What it is: The bystander effect is named after something that supposedly happened when a young woman was murdered in Queens in 1964. Kitty Genovese was stabbed multiple times and dozens of neighbors heard her cries for help. None of them called for the police, however, and she died. Although later investigation suggested the bystander issue wasn’t as serious as the first reports said, this incident nonetheless focused attention on the issue of why people don’t always help.
The upshot of research on the bystander effect, which has been found to be quite real, is that people often won’t help if they think there’s a good chance someone else will. If we are in a big crowd and there’s a car accident, we might assume someone else will call 911 and so we don’t. Unfortunately, if everyone makes that assumption, no one ends up making the call.
Why it matters today: Since November 8, there have been several hundred incidents of harassment and crime, often racially or religiously motivated, across the United States. These include people being harassed and jeered on their commutes or while going about their lives in public spaces. Ordinary people have an opportunity to help curb these incidents by offering help if they witness harassment (or by calling for emergency help if they see a dangerous situation). The bystander effect poses a potential obstacle to action.
What we can do about it: You can attack bystander effects in two ways. The first is to take personal responsibility for speaking up or taking action. Resolve to yourself that you will extend help to someone you see in need, pick up your phone to call for help, or do whatever else is needed in the situation. If it turns out someone else already helped, there is no harm done to you. Ditto for making phone calls and writing letters to your lawmakers; just because other people are doing it doesn’t diminish your power to do so too.
The second tactic that can help to overcome the bystander effect is to delegate responsibility explicitly to other people. In this case, you would make it very clear who you wanted to help and what you wanted from them. For example, if you see someone being harassed on a subway but you are not able to intervene directly or need help, you can say, “Sir in the yellow scarf! Please block that man who is yelling from the crying woman. Person in the red coat with the big bag–please dial 911 and ask for the police.” Be specific and be public. If people realize they are being relied on to provide a specific service, they’re much more likely to comply.
Related to that, you can build in accountability for other people. Say you’ve asked a friend to call a legislator about an issue you agree is important. Wait a day or so, then ask how the call went. Let your friend know you are expecting follow through.
Classic citation: Latane, B., & Darley, J. M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 10(3), 215–221.
A Closing Note: Deindividuation on the Internet
I’ll conclude by saying I think the number one avenue for change and reconciliation is face-to-face. Research on internet communications often finds evidence of something called “deindividuation.” The idea is that online, you don’t have the same accountability you do face-to-face. You can be anonymous. You can mask all of your personal details. And you can forget that the people you’re talking to are real human people, sometimes people that you like or love. And of course, it’s all too easy and fast to post something online in the heat of an emotional moment, and then not be able to take it back.
I think Internet activism has a place, and personally like using it to source information from people who share some of my attitudes and beliefs. But I encourage everyone including myself to resist the urge to have protracted arguments online. It’s not productive (see above), and it’s too easy for each of us to feel those deindividuation effects and become worse versions of ourselves.