Tag Archives: Current Events

Just because it’s “moral” doesn’t mean it’s “right.”

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“I don’t always think about morality…but when I do, I think Dick Cheney.”

Thus opened Peter Ditto’s talk at the SPSP Political Psychology pre-conference, greeted with a laugh from a largely-left-leaning audience. Yet as Ditto continued speaking, it became clear what he meant. When it comes to social issues, Dick Cheney is right-leaning on almost every single one…except gay marriage. This exception is seemingly entirely due to his emotional connection with his daughter, a happily-married lesbian. Ditto asserts that this political anecdote exemplifies an important empirical point: Our political beliefs are often swayed by our emotions.

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Why I Will Not Be Writing About Newtown

I’m not the type of person who shies away from sensitive topics. I like to think that I do a fairly good job of being appropriate when I know that I’m dealing with a particularly difficult or controversial issue. So when something like the Newtown massacre happens, a lot of people — including myself — think that this seems exactly like the sort of thing that I should be addressing in my blog. Finding ways to tie timely current events to psychological research is essentially the very mission statement of this blog, after all.

I’m writing this to explain why I’m not going to be writing about what happened in Newtown here. Or anywhere.

My Intro Social Psych students could tell you that I’m very fond of following up every discussion of a theory or experiment by quickly saying, “Well, it’s not actually that simple, really.” Most students hate this. Eager undergrads often sign up for Social Psychology hoping to get all of the answers to life, the universe, and everything over the course of just a few months – they want to understand why people are the way that they are, why people make the decisions that they make, why people do the things that they do. And, in a lot of ways, social psych theories — and the researchers who create them – do want to explain it all. Many of them are even quick to claim that their theories actually do just that.

But they can’t. Not really.

Every theory comes with caveats. With moderators. With individual differences. With contextual conditions that must be satisfied. With exceptions. And with nuance.

Just as people who come into my class wanting “explain-it-all theories” usually leave feeling disappointed, many people who have been searching for answers about the Newtown tragedy have found themselves coming up short as well. Why do people feel the way that they do about gun control or the right to bear arms? When faced with an insurmountable trauma or personal tragedy, how do we cope? How do we find resilience? How do we move on?

Why would someone walk into an elementary school and savagely murder dozens of innocent children? And how can we stop this from happening again?

These are the questions for which we desperately want to find the answers right now. What I often find myself doing on this blog is, in some way, providing those types of explanations that people so often crave. I know that many times, the things that I write are simplistic – of course, I can’t actually explain everything that happens in the world using academic theories and single-sample laboratory studies. It would be ridiculous to think that I could. But, in some small way, I like to think I’m providing an explanation for some things. Some part of things.

But this time, I can’t. I can’t sit here and honestly attempt to tell you that I have any sort of an answer or explanation for anything that has to do with Newtown. And I’ve tried. I’ve sat down so many times over the past few days and tried to write something about compassion. About empathy. About dealing with trauma. About mental illness. About resilience. About a search for meaning in a world that seems unpredictable and frightening. Yet no matter how much I tried to write about these things, the words never came. I could not think of any study or theory that would even come close to being an acceptable reference. My mind was blank. I couldn’t find a single thing that felt remotely helpful – or even appropriate – to say.

That’s not to say that other writers haven’t found meaningful, important things to say in the wake of this horrible tragedy. Take Emily Willingham’s wonderful piece on the dangers of conflating autism with violent tendencies, or Amanda Marcotte’s piece on the problem with our pro-gun culture. Other writers have had stunning, beautiful insights into small parts of this tragedy and, put together, these parts have come together to form a complex, nuanced, and multifaceted view of a horrific event. It’s just that this time, I won’t – I can’t – be one of those people.

Every scientist and every science writer is, first and foremost, also a human being. We feel scared and confused. We feel emotional. Even in a profession requiring the ability to consistently find the right words to say, they will still sometimes escape us — and we know that no matter how hard we look, we will never find them. They will simply never come.

Social psychology can be a truly amazing discipline. It helps us understand the world around us. It helps us understand why people do the things that they do. But it can’t give us the answer to everything, and it certainly can’t give us a black-and-white answer for this. For example, what could I really have written about how people deal with unimaginable trauma? Some will benefit by trying to imbue what has happened to them with a sense of meaning or greater purpose. Some people will feel offended and belittled by this approach. Some people will respond to this tragedy with compassion and care. Some will respond with aggression and anger. Some will appreciate insights based on logic and reason. Others will only appreciate a shoulder to cry on. I can’t tell you what psychology “says” about this tragedy, because there is no one, all-encompassing, singular thing that psychology says about this tragedy — to pretend otherwise would be presumptuous and irresponsible.

The only thing I know right now is that it’s complicated. The only thing I know is that nothing I can ever possibly say on this small, silly corner of the Internet will bring those babies and those selfless teachers back. Nothing I could ever say would ever come close to explaining why something this unconscionable has happened, and nothing I could ever say would give everyone who reads it a sense of peace, or even a sense of true understanding.

That’s why I simply can’t bring myself to try. Not this time.

Trayvon Martin’s psychological killer: Why we see guns that aren’t there [at Scientific American]

Today, I’m honored to have a post on the Scientific American guest blog about the Trayvon Martin case, discussing Joshua Correll’s 2002 research on the disturbing ways in which cultural stereotypes — even those that we do not endorse — might impact our split-second decisions to shoot (or not shoot) potentially armed targets of different races.

An excerpt:

Over a series of four studies, participants were faster to (correctly) shoot an armed target when he was Black, and faster to (correctly) decide not to shoot an unarmed target when he was White. But the truly interesting and tragic finding lies in what happened when people decided to shoot the target when he was actually holding nothing more than a wallet or a cell phone, much like what happened in the real-life case of Trayvon Martin. As it turns out, the participants were consistently more likely to accidentally shoot unarmed targets when they were Black.

Surely this must be influenced by racism, thought the researchers. After all, it would certainly make sense that racist people would be more likely to jump to the conclusion that Black people are armed. Wouldn’t non-racist people be more likely to disregard the color of the target’s skin when making judgments? Wouldn’t non-racist people – especially those who are well aware of the negative stereotypes towards Black people in American culture, and those who consciously try to fight against prejudice in their everyday lives – be more forgiving on the trigger?

Unfortunately, that hypothesis could not be further from the truth. First of all, no matter how racist the participants were (or were not), they were equally likely to shoot unarmed Black targets; outright levels of racism did not predict the results at all. However, one thing did predict performance on the task – the participants’ level of awareness that there is prejudice towards Black people in American society, even if the participant adamantly did not support those stereotypes. Simply being highly aware of prejudice in the world, even if you don’t agree with, support, or like that prejudice, makes it more likely that you might make the fateful mistake of shooting an unarmed target when making split-second decisions in uncertain conditions. The more aware you are of cultural stereotypes, the more likely you are to make a biased mistake.

Click here to read the entire post over at Scientific American!

SPSP 2012: Political Polarization


What’s that?

This is some sort of big year for American politics?

Ah, yes – it’s 2012. We’re in the middle of the Republican primaries, there’s a presidential election in 9 months, and political psychology was all over this year’s SPSP conference, including a symposium on Friday morning titled “Political Polarization.”

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Ingroups, Identities, and In-Memoriams: Why We Must Remember Never To Forget

In honor of the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I am re-publishing an edited/slightly altered version of a post from the archives on the importance of commemoration and collective memory for tragedies. The original post was published at IonPsych on May 2nd, the day after Osama Bin Laden’s death. It can be found here.

It has been ten years since September 11th, 2001. When we remember the events of that day, we often tend to focus on how well we remember all of the seemingly-minor details (despite evidence that these memories may not be quite so accurate). What we were wearing. What we ate for breakfast. Where we were sitting while we watched the news coverage.

Our practically-obsessive focus on these memories actually indicates much more than we realize. Despite mankind’s ever-present focus on the wide variety of intercultural differences, it turns out there’s at least one way in which we’re all not so different after all. We all place a tremendous importance on our memories. More specifically, we place a tremendous importance on commemoration.

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Sex, lies, and power = lies about power and sex.

Can we please stop sounding the depressing alarm claiming that all powerful men are destined to be cheating husbands?

Yes, in recent history we’ve had Anthony Weiner and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But we’ve also had Barack Obama and Mark Wahlberg. However you choose to feel about the debt ceiling or The Fighter, these are recently-newsworthy examples of powerful men who have stayed happily married without getting caught up in a sex scandal. And they’re far from being the only ones.1

The problem with proclaiming that there’s an inextricable link between power, maleness, and cheating is that it implicates both power and masculinity as unavoidable evils. Fact is, that’s not really fair – or accurate.

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Casey’s case: What psychology says about Anthony’s acquittal.

Casey Anthony

Credit: Red Huber/AP Photo

Everyone seemed to think Casey Anthony would be found guilty of murdering her 2-year-old daughter Caylee.

They all thought wrong.

In light of Anthony’s recent murder acquittal, plenty of people have wondered (either angrily or with genuine confusion) how a jury could possibly acquit Casey Anthony when her guilt seemed so apparent to the general public. As it turns out, several legal and psychological characteristics that have historically influenced the outcomes of jury trials may be able to clarify this bewilderment.
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