“Advocates might want to try different language (or a different approach) in their campaign to reform the criminal justice system,” writes Jamelle Bouie for Slate. He drew his conclusion after summarizing a new pair of studies, by psychologists Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt, looking at the relationship between being “tough on crime” and the association of criminality with blackness.
In the first study, 62 White men and women were interrupted as they got off a commuter train and invited to chat about the three strikes law in California. Before being presented with an anti-three strikes petition, they were shown a video that flashed 80 mugshots. In one condition, 25% of the photos were of black people and, in another, 45% of the photos were.
Among the subjects in the first “less black” condition, more than half signed the petition to make the law less strict, but only 28% in the “more black” condition signed it.
A second study in New York City about the stop-and-frisk policy had a similar finding:
The results suggest that white Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black. The second study suggested that this was mediated by fear; the idea of black criminals inspires higher anxiety than that of white criminals, pressing white people to want stronger law enforcement.
So, as Bouie concluded, when prison reformers and anti-racists point out the incredible and disproportionate harm these policies do to black Americans, it may have the opposite of its intended effect. Hetey and Eberhardt conclude:
Many legal advocates and social activists assume that bombarding the public with images and statistics documenting the plight of minorities will motivate people to fight inequality. Our results call this assumption into question. We demonstrated that exposure to extreme racial disparities may make the public less, not more, responsive to attempts to lessen the severity of policies that help maintain those disparities.
“Institutional disparities,” they add, “can be self-perpetuating.” Our history of unfairly targeting and punishing black men more than others now convinces white Americans that we must continue to do so.
While it hasn’t always been the case, most well-funded zoos today feature pleasant-enough looking habitats for their animals. They are typically species-appropriate, roomy enough to look less-than-totally miserable, and include trees and shrubs and other such natural features that make them attractive.
How, though, a friend of mine recently asked “does that landscaping stay nice? Why don’t [the animals] eat it, lie down on it, rip it to shreds for fun, or poop all over it?”
Because, she told me, some of it is hot-wired to give them a shock if they touch it. These images are taken from the website Total Habitat, a source of electrified grasses and vines.
Laurel Braitman writes about these products in her book, Animal Madness. When she goes to zoos, she says, she doesn’t “marvel at the gorilla… but instead at the mastery of the exhibit itself.” She writes:
The more naturalistic the cages, the more depressing they can be because they are that much more deceptive. To the mandrill on the other side of the glass, the realistic foliage that frames his favorite perch doesn’t help him one bit if it has been hot-wired so that he doesn’t destroy it… Some of the new natural looking exhibits may be even worse for their inhabitants than the old cement ones, as the new plants and other features can shrink the animals’ usable space.
The take-home message is that these attractive, naturalistic environments are more for us than they are for the animal. They teach us what the animal’s natural habitat might look like and they soothe us emotionally, reassuring us that the animal must be living a nice life.
I don’t know the extent to which zoos use electrified grasses and vines, but next time you visit one you might be inspired to look a little more closely.
Earlier this year I reviewed a study that found that, simply by changing the weight of an object in hand, psychologists can manipulate how seriously a person takes an issue. In other words, when holding something heavy, matters seem heavy. Or, concerns seem weightier when one is weighed down.
Thanks to an email from USC professor Norbert Schwarz, I was introduced to a whole series of studies on what psychologists call metaphorical effects. These are instances in which a metaphor commonly used to describe a psychological state or social reality can, in turn, induce that state or reality. So, for example, holding a warm cup of coffee makes people feel warmly toward each other (here), getting the cold shoulder makes people feel cold (here), people placed in a high location seem to be high in a hierarchy (here), and cleaning one’s hands makes a person feel morally clean (here).
Schwarz was the co-author, with Spike W.S. Lee, on another example of a metaphorical effect. They wanted to know if smelling something fishy made people suspicious. It did!
Asked to participate in a fake study on whether they’d be willing to invest money in a scheme, subjects who were exposed to a fishy smell invested less than those exposed to no smell and less than those exposed to another icky smell that was “metaphorically irrelevant”: fart.
From sensory perception to psychological state. Boom.
Lee and Schwarz were also interested in the reverse process. Did being suspicious increase the likelihood that they would identify a fishy smell as fishy. Sometimes smells can be hard to figure out, but when people are primed with the answer, they are more likely to get it right. Would the metaphorical effect work in the other direction: from psychological state to sensory perception?
They asked another group of subjects to sniff five different vials and attempt to label each smell. Half the time, they induced suspiciousness by having the experimenter say: “Obviously, it’s a very simple task and, you know, there’s . . . there’s nothing we’re trying to hide here.” The experimented would then spot a document on the table, whisk it away nervously and repeat:
Sorry, it shouldn’t have been there. But . . . ahem . . . anyway. Where was I? Oh yes, it’s all very simple. There’s nothing we’re trying to hide or anything.
Did subjects induced to be suspicious identify the fishy smell correctly more often? Yep!
This is a fun literature, but it has serious implications. It reveals that the associations we have in our minds impact how we perceive the world and each other.
Sociologists believe that essentially all of life is socially constructed, meaning that we collectively learn and internalize arbitrary connections between things: like being male and computing or being black and athleticism. These connections literally structure our brain, such that thinking about one is likely to trigger thoughts of the other.
Fishy and suspicious are connected in our minds and, so, when we are exposed to one, we are more likely to experience the other. In other cultures, Lee and Schwarz point out, it is not fishiness, but other smells that are associated with suspicion. These things are not natural or universal, but they drive our perceptions nonetheless.
Don’t you want to pinch it and squeeze it and bite its little face off!?
You’re not alone.
Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragon, graduate students in psychology, brought subjects into a lab, handed them a fresh sheet of bubble wrap, and exposed them to cute, funny, and neutral pictures of animals. Those who saw the cute ones popped significantly more bubbles than the others.
Cute things make us aggressive! It’s why we say things like: “I just wanna eat you up!” and why we have to restrain ourselves from giving our pets an uncomfortably tight hug.
Which one do you want to hurt the most!?
An aggressive response to cuteness, it appears, it “completely normal.”
The authors suggest that humans non-consciously balance extreme emotions with one from the other side of the spectrum to try to maintain some control and balance. This, Aragon explains at her website, may be why we cry when we’re really happy and laugh at funerals.
In the meantime, if this makes you want to inflict some serious squishing, know that you’re in good company.
Last month I posted data showing that, of all the things that might disqualify someone for public office, being an atheist is tops. I wrote: “Prejudice against those who say there’s no god is stronger than ageism, homophobia, and sexism.” On average, Americans would rather vote for someone who admitted to smoking pot or had an extramarital affair.
We just don’t like atheists.
But who is “we”?
A survey by the Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other. atheists were most disliked by Protestants, especially White evangelicals and Black Protestants (somewhat less so White Mainline Protestants). Atheists quite liked themselves, and agnostics thought were they were okay. Among other religiously affiliated groups, Jews gave atheists the highest rating.
For what it’s worth, atheists feel warmish toward Jews in return, preferring them to everyone except Buddhists, and they dislike Evangelical Christians almost as much as the Christians dislike them.
Activist Carol Adams has famously argued that the common phenomenon of sexualizing meat productsis designed to make us feel better about eating animals. One of the ways it does this is by making it funny. She explains:
Uneasiness becomes sexual energy… and everybody knows what to do about sexual energy. You can laugh at it, you can talk about it, it reduces whoever is presented to an object. And so it makes it okay again.
Sexualizing meat also turns the object of consumption, the animal, into a willing participant. Sex takes two and, even when one partner is objectified, there is a desire. If not “want,” it’s a “want to be wanted.”
If the meat wants you to want it, then you don’t have to feel bad about eating it. As I’ve written before, “this works best alongside feminization, as it is women who are typically presented as objects of a lustful male gaze.”
This ad, in which roosters flock to Carl’s Jr to ogle and lust over chicken “breasts,” is a disturbing example.
If you stop and think about it, alcohol is just the worst. Almost every one who drinks has experienced the pain of a mean morning hangover (at least once). Also, the experience of being drunk… why is that enjoyable? When drunk you slur your words, it’s hard to think straight, you’re liable to say or do something that will offend the people around you, and you can’t legally drive a car. Why does any of that sound like a good way to spend a Friday night?
To a sociologist, the reason people drink alcohol is that they have been socially taught to. That is, we like alcohol because we’ve been taught to overlook the negative side effects or we have redefined them as positive. If that’s confusing, don’t worry. Let’s talk about another drug people abuse (marijuana) and how the sociologist Howard Becker argues we socially construct getting high and being a stoner.
Becoming a Marijuana User
In 1953 Becker set out to answer what appears to be a simple question: how does a person become a marijuana user. After interviewing fifty marijuana users Becker (1953: 235) concluded that:
An individual will be able to use marihuana for pleasure only when he (1) learns to smoke it in a way that will produce real effects; (2) learns to recognize the effects and connect them with drug use; and (3) learns to enjoy the sensations he perceives. This proposition based on an analysis of fifty interviews with marihuana users, calls into question theories which ascribe behavior to antecedent predispositions and suggests the utility of explaining behavior in terms of the emergence of motives and dispositions in the course of experience.
The first point should be pretty obvious. You can’t get high if you don’t inhale when you smoke marijuana (like President Bill Clinton). So the first step to becoming a pot smoker is learning to properly smoke pot. Most often this takes place when an experienced smoker socializes (i.e. trains) a novice smoker in the mechanics of the task.
Becker’s second point might be harder to understand. Drugs inherently alter your physiology… that’s what makes them drugs. Being in a chemcially alterted state can be disorienting. But don’t believe me, watch this:
David, the little boy in the movie, had not been socialized to how anesthesia works. Similarly, when you ingest any drug you have to be taught to recognize the effects. So for marijuana maybe that would include heightened senses, food cravings, and possibly a sense of anxiety or paranoia. When you haven’t been socialized it’s easy to go into a panic or ignore the effects altogether.
For instance, around 2007 a police officer in Dearborn Heights Michigan stole marijuana from a drug arrest, baked it into brownies, and then consumed the brownies to get high for what he said was his very first time. He then called 911 because he thought he was dying. Becker would likely say that if he had been socialized and knew what effects he should expect, the police officer wouldn’t have likely freaked out and incriminated himself.
After you’ve learned to inhale properly, learned to recognize how the substance will alter you, then the last step to becoming a marijuana user is to redefine potentially negative experiences as positive. As we talked about above, smoking marijuana can lead to anxiety, paranoia, insatiable food cravings, hyper sensitivity, confusion, etc.
To see an example of this, we need look no further than the comment section under the video I just showed you. What WeBeChillin420’s comment does is reframe a panic attack into a desirable thing. S/he seems to be nostalgic for his or her first time consuming freak out quantities of marijuana.
Becker and the scholars he inspired to research marijuana communities further point out that it’s common among smokers to say that “coughing gets you higher.” Actually, coughing after smoking is your body’s way of telling you that you inhaled something it didn’t like. It’s your body literally gasping for air. It seems just as likely that marijuana users could think of coughing as a bad thing or as a sign they inhaled too much. Instead smokers socially construct coughing as a positive and desirable thing.
All Drugs Are Socially Constructed
While Becker focused on marijuana, we can extend his ideas to every type of drug. For instance let’s look at caffeine. Coffee and Red Bull are said to be “acquired tastes.” Doesn’t this mean that you have to learn to like them? You have to learn to like to feel a slight jitteriness? What you can take from Becker’s research is that how we think about drugs, how we react to any drug or medicine we ingest, and how we feel about others who’ve used drugs are all social constructs.
Emotional Contagion is the idea that emotions spread throughout networks. If you are around happy people, you are more likely to be happy. If you are around gloomy people, you are likely to be glum.
The data scientists at Facebook set out to learn if text-based, nonverbal/non-face-to-face interactions had similar effects. They asked: Do emotions remain contagious within digitally mediated settings? They worked to answer this question experimentally by manipulating the emotional tenor of users’ News Feeds, and recording the results.
Public reaction was such that many expressed dismay that Facebook would 1) collect their data without asking and 2) manipulate their emotions.
In an experiment with people who use Facebook, we test whether emotional contagion occurs outside of in-person interaction between individuals by reducing the amount of emotional content in the News Feed. When positive expressions were reduced, people produced fewer positive posts and more negative posts; when negative expressions were reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.
In brief, Facebook made either negative or positive emotions more prevalent in users’ News Feeds, and measured how this affected users’ emotionally expressive behaviors, as indicated by users’ own posts. In line with Emotional Contagion Theory, and in contrast to “technology disconnects us and makes us sad through comparison” hypotheses, they found that indeed, those exposed to happier content expressed higher rates of positive emotion, while those exposed to sadder content expressed higher rates of negative emotion.
Looking at the data, there are three points of particular interest:
When positive posts were reduced in the News Feed, people used .01% fewer positive words in their own posts, while increasing the number of negative words they used by .04%.
When negative posts were reduced in the News Feed, people used .07% fewer negative words in their own posts, while increasing the number of positive words by.06%.
Prior to manipulation, 22.4% of posts contained negative words, as compared to 46.8% which contained positive words.
Let’s first look at points 1 and 2 — the effects of positive and negative content in users’ News Feeds. These effects, though significant and in the predicted direction, are really really tiny. None of the effects even approach 1%. In fact, the effects are all below .1%. That’s so little! The authors acknowledge the small effects, but defend them by translating these effects into raw numbers, reflecting “hundreds of thousands” of emotion-laden status updates per day. They don’t, however, acknowledge how their (and I quote) “massive” sample size of 689,003 increases the likelihood of finding significant results.
So what’s up with the tiny effects?
The answer, I argue, is that the structural affordances of Facebook are such users are far more likely to post positive content anyway. For instance, there is no dislike button, and emoticons are the primary means of visually expressing emotion. Concretely, when someone posts something sad, there is no canned way to respond, nor an adequate visual representation. Nobody wants to “Like” the death of someone’s grandmother, and a Frownie-Face emoticon seems decidedly out of place.
The emotional tenor of your News Feed is small potatoes compared to the effects of structural affordances. The affordances of Facebook buffer against variations in content. This is clear in point 3 above, in which positive posts far outnumbered negative posts, prior to any manipulation. The very small effects of experimental manipulations indicates that the overall emotional makeup of posts changed little after the study, even when positive content was artificially decreased.
So Facebook was already manipulating your emotions — our emotions — and our logical lines of action. We come to know ourselves by seeing what we do, and the selves we perform through social media become important mirrors with which we glean personal reflections. The affordances of Facebook therefore affect not just emotive expressions, but reflect back to users that they are the kind of people who express positive emotions.
Positive psychologists would say this is good; it’s a way in which Facebook helps its users achieve personal happiness. Critical theorists would disagree, arguing that Facebook’s emotional guidance is a capitalist tool which stifles rightful anger, indignation, and mobilization towards social justice. In any case, Facebook is not, nor ever was, emotionally neutral.
Jenny Davis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at James Madison University and a weekly contributor to Cyborgology, where this post originally appeared. You can follow her on Twitter.