The roots of implicit bias

Daniel A. Yudkin and Jay Van Bavel write: During the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton argued that “implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police.” Her comment moved to the forefront of public conversation an issue that scientists have been studying for decades: namely, that even well-meaning people frequently harbor hidden prejudices against members of other racial groups. Studies have shown that these subtle biases are widespread and associated with discrimination in legal, economic and organizational settings.

Critics of this notion, however, protest what they see as a character smear — a suggestion that everybody, deep down, is racist. Vice President-elect Mike Pence has said that an “accusation of implicit bias” in cases where a white police officer shoots a black civilian serves to “demean law enforcement.” Writing in National Review, David French claimed that the concept of implicit bias lets people “indict entire communities as bigoted.”

But implicit bias is not about bigotry per se. As new research from our laboratory suggests, implicit bias is grounded in a basic human tendency to divide the social world into groups. In other words, what may appear as an example of tacit racism may actually be a manifestation of a broader propensity to think in terms of “us versus them” — a prejudice that can apply, say, to fans of a different sports team. This doesn’t make the effects of implicit bias any less worrisome, but it does mean people should be less defensive about it. [Continue reading…]

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How to bridge the political divide at the holiday dinner table

By Andrew J. Hoffman, University of Michigan

We are a divided nation; that is an understatement. What’s more, we increasingly hear we are living in our own “bubble” or echo chamber that differing views cannot penetrate. To correct the problem, many are calling for people to reach out, to talk and above all, to listen. That is all well and good, but what are we supposed to talk about? We can’t hope to listen without a topic for finding common ground.

In my view, there are (at least) two prominent issues in this election that can serve as a bridge across our political divides. The first is that the political and economic system needs fixing because it favors those with special status or access. The second is that income inequality is reaching an intolerable level.

Might these two topics help mend the unpleasant Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners that many Americans are dreading? Instead of avoiding that unpleasantness, it may be a time to embrace it.

[Read more…]

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The fear election

Ron Chandler, University of Florida

Whether you support Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, fear might be the biggest factor driving you to the polls.

Over the weekend, pollster Peter Hart told NBC News that this has been “an election about fear.”

“Donald Trump’s message was the fear of what was happening to America,” he continued, “and Hillary Clinton’s was about the fear of Donald Trump.”

Indeed, Trump has made fear central to his campaign strategy. Using divisive and isolationist rhetoric, he has invoked images of immigrants and terrorists streaming into the country unaccounted for, of inner cities rife with poverty and crime.

Clinton, on the other hand, has used Trump’s words and actions to instill fears about what would happen to the country under a Trump presidency.

Given the fraught tone of the campaign, it’s no surprise that a poll from over the summer found that 81 percent of voters said they were afraid of one or both of the candidates winning.

For political candidates, why is it so effective to tap into voter fears? And what does the psychology research say about fear’s ability to influence behavior and decision-making?

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The definitive compendium of insults made by Donald Trump on Twitter

The New York Times reports: The mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey is “not a nice person.” The golf swing of the actor Samuel L. Jackson is “not athletic.” A lectern in the Oval Office “looks odd,” and the mobile carrier T-Mobile’s service “is terrible.”

These comments are not private thoughts, nor are they the result of an embarrassing hidden camera, an off-the-record comment or a document release. They are public statements made by Donald Trump to his 5.9 million Twitter followers.

We know this because we’ve read, tagged and quoted them all.

The end result is “Donald Trump’s Twitter Insults: The Complete List (So Far).” It’s not a sample of some insults, or just those about his political rivals — though plenty of those exist. It’s the full count — a 100 percent sample, in polling terms — representing our best effort to categorize more than 4,000 tweets Mr. Trump has made since he declared his candidacy in June 2015.

Of those, we found that one in every eight was a personal insult of some kind. [Continue reading…]

Julie Irwin writes: Research shows that one of the primary reasons to denigrate people is to signal membership in a group: They are out, so you are in. People are always looking to belong, and Trump may represent, for some people, a particularly attractive membership opportunity. He is clear about what “his kind” of people are — the winners, the big men on campus.

When he insults people as not having these qualities, he is providing an opportunity for others to affirm themselves by joining him in the insulting chorus. They can call back to him by being insulting to the losers, too. It becomes a signaling contest, and humans engage in this type of behavior all the time, insulting people while other people are watching, chirping on Twitter and at rallies, looking for their groups.

One of my favorite social psychology experiments makes the point: Students in fraternities and sororities who wanted to signal their loyalty were especially likely to denigrate people other fraternities and sororities by judging them as “foolish” or “unintelligent” if the insults were public. The insults are not for the insulted but for the group calling out to them.

This process only works if it is linked with warmth within the group.

On Twitter, Trump is friendly and chatty with people who support him, especially if they try to get his attention by insulting nonbelievers. “Trump pummels his opponents — and the press” one recent tweet said from someone named John to a few hundred followers — and Trump retweeted it to 5.75 million. He commonly quotes ordinary folks’ tweets and says “Thanks!!!!” to them as if they were his best friends. [Continue reading…]

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The more you know about a topic the more likely you are to have false memories about it

By Ciara Greene, University College Dublin

Human memory does not operate like a video tape that can be rewound and rewatched, with every viewing revealing the same events in the same order. In fact, memories are reconstructed every time we recall them. Aspects of the memory can be altered, added or deleted altogether with each new recollection. This can lead to the phenomenon of false memory, where people have clear memories of an event that they never experienced.

False memory is surprisingly common, but a number of factors can increase its frequency. Recent research in my lab shows that being very interested in a topic can make you twice as likely to experience a false memory about that topic.

Previous research has indicated that experts in a few clearly defined fields, such as investments and American football, might be more likely to experience false memory in relation to their areas of expertise. Opinion as to the cause of this effect is divided. Some researchers have suggested that greater knowledge makes a person more likely to incorrectly recognise new information that is similar to previously experienced information. Another interpretation suggests that experts feel that they should know everything about their topic of expertise. According to this account, experts’ sense of accountability for their judgements causes them to “fill in the gaps” in their knowledge with plausible, but false, information.

To further investigate this, we asked 489 participants to rank seven topics from most to least interesting. The topics we used were football, politics, business, technology, film, science and pop music. The participants were then asked if they remembered the events described in four news items about the topic they selected as the most interesting, and four items about the topic selected as least interesting. In each case, three of the events depicted had really happened and one was fictional.

The results showed that being interested in a topic increased the frequency of accurate memories relating to that topic. Critically, it also increased the number of false memories – 25% of people experienced a false memory in relation to an interesting topic, compared with 10% in relation to a less interesting topic. Importantly, our participants were not asked to identify themselves as experts, and did not get to choose which topics they would answer questions about. This means that the increase in false memories is unlikely to be due to a sense of accountability for judgements about a specialist topic.

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How aphasic patients understood the presidential debate

Susie Neilson writes: In The President’s Speech, a 1985 essay by the late neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, he observes a group of people with aphasia, a language disorder, as they laugh uproariously at the television. The cause of their amusement is an unnamed actor-turned United States president, presumably Ronald Reagan, addressing his audience: “There he was, the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal…The President was, as always, moving—but he was moving them, apparently, mainly to laughter. What could they be thinking? Were they failing to understand him? Or did they, perhaps, understand him all too well?

Aphasic patients have a heightened ability to interpret body language, tonal quality, and other non-verbal aspects of communication due to a disruption of their speech, writing, reading, or listening abilities. Each aphasic person may have disruptions in any or all of these areas. Usually, the damage comes from a stroke or other head trauma — many people become aphasic in the wake of combat, for example, or after car accidents. “The key,” says Darlene Williamson, a speech pathologist specializing in aphasia and president of the National Aphasia Association, “is intelligence remains intact.”

In this sense, Williamson says, having aphasia is akin to visiting a foreign country, where everyone is communicating in a language you are conversational in at best. “The more impaired your language is,” she says, “the harder you’re working to be sure that you’re comprehending what’s going on.” How do we do this? By paying more careful attention to the cues we can understand, Williamson says. [Continue reading…]

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Hints of tool use, culture seen in bumble bees

Science magazine reports: For years, cognitive scientist Lars Chittka felt a bit eclipsed by his colleagues at Queen Mary University of London. Their studies of apes, crows, and parrots were constantly revealing how smart these animals were. He worked on bees, and at the time, almost everyone assumed that the insects acted on instinct, not intelligence. “So there was a challenge for me: Could we get our small-brained bees to solve tasks that would impress a bird cognition researcher?” he recalls. Now, it seems he has succeeded at last.

Chittka’s team has shown that bumble bees can not only learn to pull a string to retrieve a reward, but they can also learn this trick from other bees, even though they have no experience with such a task in nature. The study “successfully challenges the notion that ‘big brains’ are necessary” for new skills to spread, says Christian Rutz, an evolutionary ecologist who studies bird cognition at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.

Many researchers have used string pulling to assess the smarts of animals, particularly birds and apes. So Chittka and his colleagues set up a low clear plastic table barely tall enough to lay three flat artificial blue flowers underneath. Each flower contained a well of sugar water in the center and had a string attached that extended beyond the table’s boundaries. The only way the bumble bee could get the sugar water was to pull the flower out from under the table by tugging on the string. [Continue reading…]

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Anger has come to saturate our politics and culture — philosophy can show a way out

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Martha C Nussbaum writes: There’s no emotion we ought to think harder and more clearly about than anger. Anger greets most of us every day – in our personal relationships, in the workplace, on the highway, on airline trips – and, often, in our political lives as well. Anger is both poisonous and popular. Even when people acknowledge its destructive tendencies, they still so often cling to it, seeing it as a strong emotion, connected to self-respect and manliness (or, for women, to the vindication of equality). If you react to insults and wrongs without anger you’ll be seen as spineless and downtrodden. When people wrong you, says conventional wisdom, you should use justified rage to put them in their place, exact a penalty. We could call this football politics, but we’d have to acknowledge right away that athletes, whatever their rhetoric, have to be disciplined people who know how to transcend anger in pursuit of a team goal.

If we think closely about anger, we can begin to see why it is a stupid way to run one’s life. A good place to begin is Aristotle’s definition: not perfect, but useful, and a starting point for a long Western tradition of reflection. Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback. So: significant damage, pertaining to one’s own values or circle of cares, and wrongfulness. All this seems both true and uncontroversial. More controversial, perhaps, is his idea (in which, however, all Western philosophers who write about anger concur) that the angry person wants some type of payback, and that this is a conceptual part of what anger is. In other words, if you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger. [Continue reading…]

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The self-reliant individual is a myth that needs updating

Kimberley Brownlee writes: Great loners are fascinating. Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Buddhist monks in their hermitage, and fictional heroes such as Robinson Crusoe are all romantic figures of successful solitary survival. Their setting is the wilderness. Their apparent triumph is the outcome of grit, ingenuity and self-reliance.

One reason that such characters seem appealing is that, ironically, they are reassuring. They give the comforting impression that anyone could thrive in isolation as they do. This reassurance can be summed up in the declaration made by Henrik Ibsen’s Dr Stockmann at the end of An Enemy of the People (1882), after the locals have persecuted him for revealing that the town’s tourist baths are contaminated. Stockmann declares: ‘The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.’

The great loners embody an idea of freedom from the vagaries and stresses of social life. As human beings, we are vulnerable to each other’s moods, proclivities, ideologies, perceptions, knowledge and ignorance. We are vulnerable to our society’s conventions, policies and hierarchies. We need other people’s blessing and often their help in order to get resources. When we’re young and when we’re old, we are vulnerable enough that our lives are happy only if other people choose to care about us.

No wonder then that Robinson Crusoe is one of the best-known novels in history; there is solace in the hermit’s self-governing independence. But this romantic image of the eremitic life rests on a mistaken idea of both the great loners’ circumstances and the nature of social isolation. [Continue reading…]

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Control and fear: What mass killings and domestic violence have in common

Amanda Taub writes: One of the first things we learned about Omar Mateen, the gunman in the nightclub massacre in Orlando, Fla., was that his ex-wife said he had beaten her severely until she left him in 2009.

If it sounds familiar that a gunman in a mass shooting would have a history of domestic violence, it should.

In February, Cedric Ford shot 17 people at his Kansas workplace, killing three, only 90 minutes after being served with a restraining order sought by his ex-girlfriend, who said he had abused her. And Man Haron Monis, who holed up with hostages for 17 hours in a cafe in Sydney, Australia, in 2014, an episode that left two people dead and four wounded, had terrorized his ex-wife. He had threatened to harm her if she left him, and was eventually charged with organizing her murder.

When Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group, analyzed F.B.I. data on mass shootings from 2009 to 2015, it found that 57 percent of the cases included a spouse, former spouse or other family member among the victims — and that 16 percent of the attackers had previously been charged with domestic violence.

Social scientists have not settled on an explanation for this correlation, but their research reveals striking parallels between the factors that drive the two phenomena.

There are, of course, a tangle of factors behind every murder, especially terrorism inspired by foreign groups. But research on domestic violence hints at a question that often arises from seemingly inexplicable events like Mr. Mateen’s massacre of 49 people at an Orlando nightclub — what drives individuals to commit such mass attacks? — and sheds light on the psychology of violence. [Continue reading…]

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If Omar Mateen was gay, it makes his LGBT nightclub attack more homophobic

Jay Michaelson writes: If Mateen turns out to have been repressing his sexuality, that makes the attack more about homophobia, not less. Now what we have is not a gay-hating radical Islamist but a self-hating gay man who found in Islamist ideology a way to express his animus at everyone and everything.

Nor is this unique to Islam. When Christian fundamentalist Ted Haggard preached vitriolic sermons against homosexuality, it was because of — not despite — his furtive sex dates with a drug-dealing gay masseur. When former senator Larry Craig inveighed against the evils of equality, it was because of — not despite — his own shame around soliciting men for sex in public restrooms.

That is why study after study has shown that the more homophobic one is, the more likely one is to have repressed homosexual desires. If you’re battling your demons in private, you’re going to battle them in public too.

It is also why repressed gay people seek out fundamentalist religion in the first place. Religious fundamentalism sublimates the repressed sexual urge into religious zeal. In its Christian, Muslim, and Jewish forms, it insists that we are all struggling with evil urges that must be assiduously repressed. And its restrictions on sexual expression, coupled with often single sex male environments, work just fine for those who couldn’t express their sexuality in an “acceptable” way anyway.

Once again, that is as true for “celibate” Catholic priests as it is for ultra-Orthodox Jews as it is for born-again evangelicals as it is for newly radicalized Muslims. The logic of fundamentalist religion is the logic of repression and sublimation, of projecting one’s own inner struggles onto the screen of the theological.

I know this from personal experience. For 10 years, I lived my life as a closeted, Orthodox Jew. I wasn’t closeted because I was Orthodox; I was Orthodox because I was closeted. [Continue reading…]

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The Orlando shooter may have been gay? The gay community isn’t surprised

Dave Cullen writes: My mantra after every mass-shooting tragedy is and always will be: don’t jump to conclusions too quickly, especially on motive. It’s healthy to discuss possibilities, particularly as the evidence piles up, but remember that early facts often turn out to point in the wrong direction. The media and even the president lunged way too quickly to assume that the Orlando massacre was an act of international terrorism, which it may or may not have been. Today we’re all asking a different question: Was the shooter gay? A rapidly accumulating set of evidence — including reports that he had been to Pulse in the years prior to the shooting — suggests that he was, or that he was still struggling with gay urges. But he might also just have been casing the place.

The idea that the killer, Omar Mateen, was gay himself may sound baffling, and much of the national media has treated it that way in the day or so since news of his bar-hopping habits surfaced. But it’s no surprise to most gay people. Many of my gay friends assumed as much from the beginning, and predicted this before the first scraps of evidence surfaced. It sounds as if he was a self-loathing gay — which is almost the same as saying he was just coming to terms with being gay. Has anyone ever discovered his gayness and not wanted to tear it out of himself?

Most of us haven’t just known that guy, we’ve been that guy. I never touched a man, or admitted how badly I wanted to, until I was 28. That initiated a seven-year bi phase, which I called “experimenting” for the first half, even after a friend said, “Experimenting? How many times do you need to rerun the experiment?” I had slept with at least a hundred men by then. Still not convinced. Hmmm.[Continue reading…]

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