Who among us this election — except perhaps that elusive undecided voter — has not turned to a politically aligned friend and said, from their heart of hearts, “I just can’t understand how anyone could vote for Clinton/Trump”? The sheer mindbogglingness of it, the utter failure of so many Americans to even begin to fathom voting for the other candidate, is one of the most disturbing features of this election. We all seem to be asking: What could the other side be thinking!?

left: flickr photo by Sarah Hina; right: flickr photo by Darron Bergenheier.
left: flickr photo by Sarah Hina; right: flickr photo by Darron Bergenheier

Perhaps what we need is a “sociology of thinking.” And we’ve got one; it’s called cognitive sociology.

One of the foundational texts in the subfield is called Social Mindscapes. In it, the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel argues that we think as individuals (we are all alone in our brains) and we think as human beings (with the cognitive processes that humans have inherited from evolution), but we also think as members of social groups. Our thinking, then, is not only idiosyncratic (i.e., “individual”), nor universal (i.e., “human”) — though it is both those things — it’s also social. Our thinking is influenced by the groups to which we belong, what Zerubavel called “thought communities.” These are the people with whom we enjoy a meeting of the minds.

By this, Zerubavel doesn’t simply mean that our social groups shape what information we get and what arguments resonate, though that’s true. He and other cognitive sociologists argue that our thought communities shape cognition itself, that the brains of people in strongly divergent thought communities literally work differently. To Zerubavel, the idea that many Democrats can’t begin to understand Republican thinking — and vice versa — isn’t a surprise, it’s a hypothesis.

Research on sensory perception is fun evidence for their claims. Researchers have shown, for example, that our language categories influence not just how we describe the world we see, but how we see it. The Himba in Namibia, for example — who have one word for blue and some greens and another word for other greens, reds, and browns — are better than English speakers at differentiating one shade of green from another, but worse at differentiating green and blue from each other. Likewise, Russian speakers are better than English speakers at differentiating shades of blue because they have more than one word for the color and English speakers, in turn, are better than Japanese speakers at recognizing the gradations between blue and green, because the Japanese have traditionally used only one word to describe them both.

If our membership in thought communities is powerful enough to shift our very perception of color, then it must be able to influence our thinking in many other ways, too. In Social Mindscapes, Zerubavel shows that what we pay attention to, the categories we use, what we remember, and even our perception of time are all shaped by our thought communities.

Accordingly, cognitive sociology would predict that the rising polarization in politics and the fragmentation of media will make it harder and harder to understand each other, not because we don’t agree on the facts or because we have different political interests, but because our brains are actually working in divergent ways. That is, what we’re experiencing with this election is not just political disagreement, it’s a total breakdown in functional communication, which sounds about right.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Why do so many Americans continue to support Donald Trump with such fervor?

Hillary Clinton now leads Donald Trump in presidential polls by double-digits, but Trump’s hardiest supporters have not only stood by him, many have actually increased their commitment. It seems clear that in a little less than a month’s time, tens of millions of Americans will cast a vote for a man who overtly seeks to overthrow basic institutions that preserve the American ideal such as a free pressfreedom of religionuniversal suffragethe right of the accused to legal counsel, and the right of habeas corpus. This is over-and-above his loudly proclaimed bigotry, sexism, boasts of sexual assault, ableism, history of racial and anti-Muslim bias, and other execrable personal characteristics that would have completely destroyed the electoral prospects of past presidential candidates.

Trump is a uniquely odious candidate who is quite likely going to lose, but more than 40% of Americans plan to vote for him. The science of group conflict might help us understand why.

Photograph by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Photograph by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

In a powerful 2003 article in the journal American Psychologist, Roy Eidelson and Judy Eidelson foreshadowed Trump’s popularity. Drawing on a close reading of both history and social science literature, they identified five beliefs that — if successfully inculcated in people by a leader — motivate people to initiate group conflict. Trump’s campaign rhetoric deftly mobilizes all five.

  • Confidence in one’s superiority: Trump constantly broadcasts a message that he and his followers are superior to other Americans, whereas those who oppose him are “stupid” and deserve to be punched in the face. His own followers’ violent acts are excused as emanating from “tremendous love and passion for the country.”
  • Claims of unjust treatment: Trump is obsessed with the concept of fairness, but only when it goes his way. Given his presumed superiority, it naturally follows that the only way he and his supporters could fail is if injustice occurs.
  • Fears of vulnerability: Accordingly, Trump has overtly stated that he believes the presidential election will be rigged. His supporters believe him. In one recent poll, only 16 percent of North Carolina Trump supporters agreed that if Clinton wins it would be because she got more votes.
  • Distrust of the other: Trump and his supporters routinely claim that the mediagovernmenteducational institutions, and other established entities are overtly undermining Trump, his supporters, and their values. To many Trump supporters, merely being published or broadcast by a major news outlet is evidence that a fact is not credible, given the certainty they have that media professionals are conspiring against Trump.
  • A sense of helplessness: When Trump allows that it’s possible that he might lose the election because of fraud, conspiracy, or disloyalty, he taps into his followers’ sense of helplessness. No matter how superior he and his followers truly are, no matter how unjustly they are treated, there is little that they can do in the face of a nation-wide plot against him. Accordingly, many of Trump’s most ardent supporters will see the impending rejection of their candidate not as a corrective experience to lead them to reconsider their beliefs, but as further evidence that they are helpless in the face of a larger, untrustworthy outgroup.

By ably nurturing these five beliefs, Trump has gained power far beyond the level most could have dreamed prior to the present election cycle.

It seems clear that, if and when Trump loses, he won’t be going anywhere. He has a constituency, stoked by effective rhetorics shown to propel people to group conflict, one some of his supporters are already preparing for. And, since he has convinced so many of his supporters that he alone can bring the changes they desire, it is a surety that he will use their mandate for his own future purposes.

Sean Ransom, PhD is an assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Tulane University School of Medicine and founder of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center of New Orleans. He received his PhD in clinical psychology at the University of South Florida.

In 1985, Zeneca Pharmaceuticals (now AstraZeneca) declared October “National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.” Their original campaign promoted mammography screenings and self-breast exams, as well as aided fundraising efforts for breast cancer related research.  The month continues with the same goals, and is still supported by AstraZeneca, in addition to many other organizations, most notably the American Cancer Society.

The now ubiquitous pink ribbons were pinned onto the cause, when the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation distributed them at a New York City fundraising event in 1991. The following year, 1.5 million Estée Lauder  cosmetic customers received the promotional reminder, along with an informational card about breast self-exams. Although now a well-known symbol, the ribbons elide a less well-known history of Breast Cancer Awareness co-opting grassroots’ organizing and activism targeting women’s health and breast cancer prevention.

The “awareness” campaign also opened the floodgates for other companies to capitalize on the disease. For example, Avon, New Balance, and Yoplait have sold jewelry, athletic shoes, and yogurt, respectively, using the pink ribbon as a logo, while KitchenAid still markets a product line called “Cook for the Cure” that includes pink stand mixers, food processors, and cooking accessories, items which the company first started selling in 2001.  Not to be left out, Smith and Wesson, Taurus, Federal, and Bersa, among other companies, have sold firearms with pink grips and/or finishing, pink gun-cases, and even pink ammo with the pink ribbon symbol emblazoned on the packaging. Because breast cancer can be promoted in corporate-friendly ways and lacks the stigma associated with other diseases, like HIV/AIDS, these companies and others, have been willing to endorse Breast Cancer Awareness Month and, in some cases, donate proceeds from their merchandise to support research affiliated with the disease.

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Yet companies’ willingness to profit from the cause has also served to commodify breast cancer, and to support what sociologist Gayle Sulik calls “pink ribbon culture.” As Sulik notes, marking breast cancer with the color pink not only feminizes the disease, but also reinforces gendered expectations about how women are “supposed” to react to and cope with the illness, claims also corroborated by my own research on breast cancer support groups.

Based on participant observation of four support groups and in-depth interviews with participants, I have documented how breast cancer patients are expected to present a feminine self, and to also be positive and upbeat, despite the pain and suffering they endure as a result of being ill. The women in the study, for example, spent considerable time and attention on their physical appearance, working to present a traditionally feminine self, even while recovering from surgical procedures and debilitating therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Similarly, members of the groups frequently joked about their bodies, especially in sexualized ways, making light of the physical disfigurement resulting from their disease. Like the compensatory femininity in which they engaged, laughing about their plight seemed to assuage some of the emotional pain that they experienced.  However, the coping strategies reinforced traditional standards of beauty and also prevented members of the groups from expressing anger or bitterness, feelings that would have been justifiable, but seen as (largely) culturally inappropriate because they were women.

Even when they recovered physically from the disease, the women were not immune to the effects of the “pink ribbon culture,” as other work from the study demonstrates. Many group participants, for instance, reported that friends and family were often less than sympathetic when they expressed uncertainty about the future and/or discontent about what they had been through.  As “survivors,” they were expected to be strong, positive, and upbeat, not fearful or anxious, or too willing to complain about the aftermath of their disease. The women thus learned to cover their uncomfortable emotions with a veneer of strength and courage. This too helps to illustrate how the “pink ribbon culture,” which celebrates survivors and survivorhood, limits the range of emotions that women who have had breast cancer are able to express. It also demonstrates how the myopic focus on survivors detracts attention from the over 40,000 women who die from breast cancer each year in the United States, as well as from the environmental causes of the disease.

Such findings should give pause. If October is truly a time to bring awareness to breast cancer and the women affected by it, we need to acknowledge the pain and suffering associated with the disease and resist the “pink ribbon culture” that contributes to it.

Jacqueline Clark, PhD is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Ripon College. Her research focuses on inequalities, the sociology of health and illness, and the sociology of jobs, work, and organizations.

The great Louisiana Floods of 2016 have led to the closure of at least 22 of the state’s 70 public school districts, with additional districts calling off classes as a precaution given the immense devastation. This means that as many as one-third of the state’s public school students were out of school last week ,and potentially for many weeks to come. That equates to more than 241,000 children who are not in classrooms where they belong; and these figures do not even account for the many thousands of private and charter school students also out of school across the water-logged state.

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Almost exactly 11 years ago, Hurricane Katrina disrupted some 370,000 school-age children. For our book, Children of Katrina, we spent nearly a decade examining how their lives unfolded in the years after the catastrophe. We focused on education as a key “sphere” of children’s lives. It is a special sphere in that it is unique to children and youth and it has specific time parameters: when the window for schooling is gone, children cannot get it back. Missing school means missing critical stages in cognitive and social development and likely suffering irreparable harm in terms of their intellectual growth, development, and future educational goals.

The school sphere, as with the other spheres of children’s lives, is marked by inequality, with some students having access to greater advantages than others. Some school districts, often segregated by race and class, have more resources and support than others; some families have the ability to enroll children in private schools that require tuition or arrange to be in a high-quality school district, while other families do not have those options.

Keeping this in mind, and recognizing the importance of education during displacement and recovery, there are many things that can and should be done, to support disaster affected children and youth and their educational process. These include:

  • Reopening schools (including childcare centers and pre-schools) as quickly as possible after a disaster; this means allocating proper resources to repair, rebuild, and/or revive schools in disaster zones;
  • In receiving communities that receive large numbers of displaced children and youth, providing pathways for their rapid enrollment;
  • Offering emotional support through optional peer-oriented and/or peer-led support groups as well as licensed professional counselors, social workers, and school therapists;
  • Training all school staff—from upper-level administrators, to teachers, to custodians—how to be supportive of children and youth who have been affected by disaster as well as those who are in receiving communities who are now welcoming disaster-affected youth into their classrooms;
  • Designing and implementing disaster preparedness, response, and recovery curriculum within classrooms;
  • Providing opportunities for children to help their schools’ and classmates’ recovery; this could, for example, come in the form of service learning, fundraising, mentoring programs, or community action activities;
  • Offering immediate and long-term support for teachers, who are often recovering from disaster themselves; this may include financial, professional, and emotional support;
  • Intervening against bullying and stigma that may be attached to “disaster survivor” status for youth; reminding these professionals that bullying may be exacerbated based on region of origin, gender, age, race, or other characteristics;
  • Integrating displaced children in classrooms with familiar faces if possible;
  • Making school days as predictable as possible and re-establishing routines within classrooms and schools;
  • Allowing children and youth the opportunity to work on projects that help them process their disaster experience;
  • Funding school programs in arts, music, drama, and creative writing to encourage expression and foster healing.

Alice Fothergill, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Vermont. She is a member of the Social Science Research Council Research Network on Persons Displaced by Katrina. Fothergill’s book, Heads Above Water: Gender, Class, and Family in the Grand Forks Flood, examines women’s experiences in the 1997 flood in North Dakota. She is also co-editor of Social Vulnerability to Disasters.

Lori Peek, PhD is an associate professor of sociology and Co-Director of the Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis at Colorado State University. She also serves as the Associate Chair for the SSRC Task Force on Hurricane Katrina and Rebuilding the Gulf Coast and is a member of the SSRC Research Network on Persons Displaced by Katrina. Peek is the author of the award-winning book Behind the Backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11 and co-editor of the volume Displaced: Life in the Katrina Diaspora.

Together, Fothergill and Peek are the authors of the award-winning book, Children of Katrina, the longest-term ethnographic study of children in disaster.

Media have tended to depict childfree people negatively, likening the decision not to have children to “whether to have pizza or Indian for dinner.” Misperceptions about those who do not have children have serious weight, given that between 2006 and 2010 15% of women and 24% of men had not had children by age 40, and that nearly half of women aged 40-44 in 2002 were what Amy Blackstone and Mahala Dyer Stewart refer to as “childfree,” or purposefully not intending to have children.

Trends in childlessness/childfreeness from the Pew Research Center:

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Blackstone and Stewart’s forthcoming 2016 article in The Family Journal, “There’s More Thinking to Decide”: How the Childfree Decide Not to Parent, engages the topic and extends the scholarly and public work Blackstone has done, including her shared blog, We’re Not Having a Baby.

When researchers explore why people do not have children, they find that the reasons are strikingly similar to reasons why people do have children. For example, “motivation to develop or maintain meaningful relationships” is a reason that some people have children – and a reason that others do not. Scholars are less certain on how people come to the decision to to be childfree. In their new article, Blackstone and Stewart find that, as is often the case with media portrayals of contemporary families, descriptions of how people come to the decision to be childfree have been oversimplified. People who are childfree put a significant amount of thought into the formation of their families, as they report.

Blackstone and Stewart conducted semi-structured interviews with 21 women and 10 men, with an average age of 34, who are intentionally childfree. After several coding sessions, Blackstone and Stewart identified 18 distinct themes that described some aspect of decision-making with regard to living childfree. Ultimately, the authors concluded that being childfree was a conscious decision that arose through a process. These patterns were reported by both men and women respondents, but in slightly different ways.

Childfree as a conscious decision

All but two of the participants emphasized that their decision to be childfree was made consciously. One respondent captured the overarching message:

People who have decided not to have kids arguably have been more thoughtful than those who decided to have kids. It’s deliberate, it’s respectful, ethical, and it’s a real honest, good, fair, and, for many people, right decision.

There were gender differences in the motives for these decisions. Women were more likely to make the decision based on concern for others: some thought that the world was a tough place for children today, and some did not want to contribute to overpopulation and environmental degradation. In contrast, men more often made the decision to live childfree “after giving careful and deliberate thought to the potential consequences of parenting for their own, everyday lives, habits, and activities and what they would be giving up were they to become parents.”

Childfree as a process

Contrary to misconceptions that the decision to be childfree is a “snap” decision, Blackstone and Stewart note that respondents conceptualized their childfree lifestyle as “a working decision” that developed over time. Many respondents had desired to live childfree since they were young; others began the process of deciding to be childfree when they witnessed their siblings and peers raising children. Despite some concrete milestones in the process of deciding to be childfree, respondents emphasized that it was not one experience alone that sustained the decision. One respondent said, “I did sort of take my temperature every five, six, years to make sure I didn’t want them.” Though both women and men described their childfree lifestyle as a “working decision,” women were more likely to include their partners in that decision-making process by talking about the decision, while men were more likely to make the decision independently.

Blackstone and Stewart conclude by asking, “What might childfree families teach us about alternative approaches to ‘doing’ marriage and family?” The present research suggests that childfree people challenge what is often an unquestioned life sequence by consistently considering the impact that children would have on their own lives as well as the lives of their family, friends, and communities. One respondent reflected positively on childfree people’s thought process: ‘‘I wish more people thought about thinking about it… I mean I wish it were normal to decide whether or not you were going to have children.’’

Braxton Jones is a graduate student in sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and serves as a Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar for the Council on Contemporary Families, where this post originally appeared.

We often think that religion helps to build a strong society, in part because it gives people a shared set of beliefs that fosters trust. When you know what your neighbors think about right and wrong, it is easier to assume they are trustworthy people. The problem is that this logic focuses on trustworthy individuals, while social scientists often think about the relationship between religion and trust in terms of social structure and context.

New research from David Olson and Miao Li (using data from the World Values survey) examines the trust levels of 77,405 individuals from 69 countries collected between 1999 and 2010. The authors’ analysis focuses on a simple survey question about whether respondents felt they could, in general, trust other people. The authors were especially interested in how religiosity at the national level affected this trust, measuring it in two ways: the percentage of the population that regularly attended religious services and the level of religious diversity in the nation.

These two measures of religious strength and diversity in the social context brought out a surprising pattern. Nations with high religious diversity and high religious attendance had respondents who were significantly less likely to say they could generally trust other people. Conversely, nations with high religious diversity, but relatively low levels of participation, had respondents who were more likely to say they could generally trust other people.

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One possible explanation for these two findings is that it is harder to navigate competing claims about truth and moral authority in a society when the stakes are high and everyone cares a lot about the answers, but also much easier to learn to trust others when living in a diverse society where the stakes for that difference are low. The most important lesson from this work, however, may be that the positive effects we usually attribute to cultural systems like religion are not guaranteed; things can turn out quite differently depending on the way religion is embedded in social context.

Evan Stewart is a PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota studying political culture. He is also a member of The Society Pages’ graduate student board. There, he writes for the blog Discoveries, where this post originally appeared. You can follow him on Twitter

Flashback Friday.

Russ Ruggles, who blogs for Online Dating Matchmaker, makes an argument for lying in your online dating profile. He notes, first, that lying is common and, second, that people lie in the direction that we would expect, given social desirability. Men, for example, tend to exaggerate their height; women tend to exaggerate their thinness:

Since people also tend to restrict their searches according to social desirability (looking for taller men and thinner women), these lies will result in your being included in a greater proportion of searches. So, if you lie, you are more likely to actually go on a date.

Provided your lie was small — small enough, that is, to not be too obvious upon first meeting — Ruggles explains that things are unlikely to fall to pieces on the first date. It turns out that people’s stated preferences have a weak relationship to who they actually like. Stated preferences, one study found, “seemed to vanish when it came time to choose a partner in physical space.”

“It turns out,” Ruggles writes, that “we have pretty much no clue what we actually want in a partner.”

So lie! A little! Lie away! And, also, don’t be so picky. You never know!

Originally posted in 2010. Crossposted at Jezebel.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Historian Molly Worthen is fighting tyranny, specifically the “tyranny of feelings” and the muddle it creates. We don’t realize that our thinking has been enslaved by this tyranny, but alas, we now speak its language. Case in point:

“Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida.

Why the “linguistic hedging” as Worthen calls it? Why couldn’t the kid just say, “Sanders is too idealistic”? You might think the difference is minor, or perhaps the speaker is reluctant to assert an opinion as though it were fact. Worthen disagrees.

“I feel like” is not a harmless tic. . . . The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument — a muddle that has political consequences.

The phrase “I feel like” is part of a more general evolution in American culture. We think less in terms of morality – society’s standards of right and wrong – and more in terms individual psychological well-being. The shift from “I think” to “I feel like” echoes an earlier linguistic trend when we gave up terms like “should” or “ought to” in favor of “needs to.” To say, “Kayden, you should be quiet and settle down,” invokes external social rules of morality. But, “Kayden, you need to settle down,” refers to his internal, psychological needs. Be quiet not because it’s good for others but because it’s good for you.

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Both “needs to” and “I feel like” began their rise in the late 1970s, but Worthen finds the latter more insidious. “I feel like” defeats rational discussion. You can argue with what someone says about the facts. You can’t argue with what they say about how they feel. Worthen is asserting a clear cause and effect. She quotes Orwell: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” She has no evidence of this causal relationship, but she cites some linguists who agree. She also quotes Mark Liberman, who is calmer about the whole thing. People know what you mean despite the hedging, just as they know that when you say, “I feel,” it means “I think,” and that your are not speaking about your actual emotions.

The more common “I feel like” becomes, the less importance we may attach to its literal meaning. “I feel like the emotions have long since been mostly bleached out of ‘feel that,’ ” …

Worthen disagrees.  “When new verbal vices become old habits, their power to shape our thought does not diminish.”

“Vices” indeed. Her entire op-ed piece is a good example of the style of moral discourse that she says we have lost. Her stylistic preferences may have something to do with her scholarly ones – she studies conservative Christianity. No “needs to” for her. She closes her sermon with shoulds:

We should not “feel like.” We should argue rationally, feel deeply and take full responsibility for our interaction with the world.

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Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog. Graph updated 5/11/16.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.