How observant are you? Here’s a test! Pay careful attention, then scroll down:

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Perception is not neutral, it’s curated. If we paid attention to everything in our environments all the time, we’d be overwhelming with information. So, we learn to direct our attention to what seems important at the moment. As a result, we miss a lot. See this example, too.

The directing of our attention is situationally specific, so we learn to adapt our seeing to differing circumstances. When driving, we see different things than we do when we’re walking down the sidewalk or sitting on our front porch. When engaged in a conversation with friends at a bar, we hear different things than when we momentarily turn our focus to the band across the room. When meditating, we feel different things than when we’re daydreaming or waiting to fall asleep. In all these cases, we miss seeing, hearing, and feeling different things, too.

We can imagine that sensation is culturally specific, too, such that people familiar with different cultures literally sense the world differently. Studies comparing the cognition of people from East Asia and America — communal and individualistic societies, respectively — find that Americans looking at a picture tend to focus on a central object, whereas East Asians pay attention to the relationships between objects.

In one study, Japanese and American citizens were shown an underwater scene, like this:

Photo by mycatkins, flickr creative commons.

Asked to describe the scene afterward, Americans started with and focused on the biggest fish, while the Japanese started with the whole picture — for example, “It was a fish tank” — and recalled more details about the rocks, plants, bubbles, and smaller denizens of the pond. “Americans immediately zoomed in on the objects,” the lead scientist Richard Nisbett said. “The Japanese paid more attention to context.”

Our experience of the world isn’t neutral. It’s shaped by our cultural backgrounds, situations, and choices about how to direct our attention. So, the question is, what are you missing? And what are you seeing that others do not?

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.

Facts about all manner of things have made headlines recently as the Trump administration continues to make statements, reports, and policies at odds with things we know to be true. Whether it’s about the size of his inauguration crowd, patently false and fear-mongering inaccuracies about transgender persons in bathrooms, rates of violent crime in the U.S., or anything else, lately it feels like the facts don’t seem to matter. The inaccuracies and misinformation continue despite the earnest attempts of so many to correct each falsehood after it is made.  It’s exhausting. But why is it happening?

Many of the inaccuracies seem like they ought to be easy enough to challenge as data simply don’t support the statements made. Consider the following charts documenting the violent crime rate and property crime rate in the U.S. over the last quarter century (measured by the Bureau of Justice Statistics). The overall trends are unmistakable: crime in the U.S. has been declining for a quarter of a century.

Now compare the crime rate with public perceptions of the crime rate collected by Gallup (below). While the crime rate is going down, the majority of the American public seems to think that crime has been getting worse every year. If crime is going down, why do so many people seem to feel that there is more crime today than there was a year ago?  It’s simply not true.

There is more than one reason this is happening. But, one reason I think the alternative facts industry has been so effective has to do with a concept social scientists call the “backfire effect.” As a rule, misinformed people do not change their minds once they have been presented with facts that challenge their beliefs. But, beyond simply not changing their minds when they should, research shows that they are likely to become more attached to their mistaken beliefs. The factual information “backfires.” When people don’t agree with you, research suggests that bringing in facts to support your case might actually make them believe you less. In other words, fighting the ill-informed with facts is like fighting a grease fire with water. It seems like it should work, but it’s actually going to make things worse.

To study this, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler (2010) conducted a series of experiments. They had groups of participants read newspaper articles that included statements from politicians that supported some widespread piece of misinformation. Some of the participants read articles that included corrective information that immediately followed the inaccurate statement from the political figure, while others did not read articles containing corrective information at all.

Afterward, they were asked a series of questions about the article and their personal opinions about the issue. Nyhan and Reifler found that how people responded to the factual corrections in the articles they read varied systematically by how ideologically committed they already were to the beliefs that such facts supported. Among those who believed the popular misinformation in the first place, more information and actual facts challenging those beliefs did not cause a change of opinion—in fact, it often had the effect of strengthening those ideologically grounded beliefs.

It’s a sociological issue we ought to care about a great deal right now. How are we to correct misinformation if the very act of informing some people causes them to redouble their dedication to believing things that are not true?

Tristan Bridges, PhD is a professor at The College at Brockport, SUNY. He is the co-editor of Exploring Masculinities: Identity, Inequality, Inequality, and Change with C.J. Pascoe and studies gender and sexual identity and inequality. You can follow him on Twitter here. Tristan also blogs regularly at Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Flashback Friday.

Bewildered by Nazi soldiers’ willingness to perpetuate the horrors of World War II, Stanley Milgram set out to test the extent to which average people would do harm if instructed by an authority figure. In what would end up being one of the most famous studies in the history of social psychology, the experimenter would instruct study subjects to submit a heard, but unseen stranger (who was reputed to have a heart condition) to a series of increasingly strong electric shocks. The unseen stranger (actually a tape recording) would yelp and cry and scream and beg… and eventually be silent. If the study subject expressed a desire to quit administering the shocks, the experimenter would prod four times:

1. Please continue.
2. The experiment requires that you continue.
3. It is absolutely essential that you continue.
4. You have no other choice, you must go on.

If, after four prods, the subject still refused to administer the shock, the experiment was over.

In his initial study, though all participants at some point required prodding, 65 percent of people (26 out of 40) continued to submit the stranger to electric shocks all the way up to (a fake) 450-volts, a dose that was identified as fatal and was administered after the screaming turned to silence. You can watch a BBC replication of the studies.

Originally posted in August 2010.

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.

1Will Davies, a politics professor and economic sociologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, summarized his thoughts on Brexit for the Political Economy and Research Centre, arguing that the split wasn’t one of left and right, young and old, racist or not racist, but center and the periphery. You can read it in full there, or scroll down for my summary.

——————————–

Many of the strongest advocates for Leave, many have noted, were actually among the beneficiaries of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Small towns and rural areas receive quite a bit of financial support. Those regions that voted for Leave in the greatest numbers, then, will also suffer some of the worst consequences of the Leave. What motivated to them to vote for a change that will in all likelihood make their lives worse?

Davies argues that the economic support they received from their relationship with the EU was paired with a culturally invisibility or active denigration by those in the center. Those in the periphery lived in a “shadow welfare state” alongside “a political culture which heaped scorn on dependency.”

Davies uses philosopher Nancy Fraser’s complementary ideas of recognition and redistribution: people need economic security (redistribution), but they need dignity, too (recognition). Malrecognition can be so psychically painful that even those who knew they would suffer economically may have been motivated to vote Leave. “Knowing that your business, farm, family or region is dependent on the beneficence of wealthy liberals,” writes Davies, “is unlikely to be a recipe for satisfaction.”

It was in this context that the political campaign for Leave penned the slogan: “Take back control.” In sociology we call this framing, a way of directing people to think about a situation not just as a problem, but a particular kind of problem. “Take back control” invokes the indignity of oppression. Davies explains:

It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic. Think of what it means on an individual level to rediscover control. To be a person without control (for instance to suffer incontinence or a facial tick) is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence. What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect.

Consider the cover of the Daily Mail praising the decision and calling politicians “out-of-touch” and the EU “elite” and “contemptuous”:2

From this point of view, Davies thinks that the reward wasn’t the Leave, but the vote itself, a veritable middle finger to the UK center and the EU “eurocrats.” They know their lives won’t get better after a Brexit, but they don’t see their lives getting any better under any circumstances, so they’ll take the opportunity to pop a symbolic middle finger. That’s all they think they have.

And that’s where Davies thinks the victory  of the Leave vote parallels strongly with Donald Trump’s rise in the US:

Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.

Some people believe that voting for Trump might in fact make things worse, but the pleasure of doing so — of popping a middle finger to the Republican party and political elites more generally — would be satisfaction enough. In this sense, they may be quite a lot like the Leavers. For the disenfranchised, a vote against pragmatism and solidarity may be the only satisfaction that this election, or others, is likely to get them.

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.

1Botox has forever transformed the primordial battleground against aging. Since the FDA approved it for cosmetic use in 2002, eleven million Americans have used it. Over 90 percent of them are women.

In my forthcoming book, Botox Nation, I argue that one of the reasons Botox is so appealing to women is because the wrinkles that Botox is designed to “fix,” those disconcerting creases between our brows, are precisely those lines that we use to express negative emotions: angry, bitchy, irritated.  Botox is injected into the corrugator supercilii muscles, the facial muscles that allow us to pull our eyebrows together and push them down.  By paralyzing these muscles, Botox prevents this brow-lowering action, and in so doing, inhibits our ability to scowl, an expression we use to project to the world that we are aggravated or pissed off.

9781479825264_Full.jpg (200×300)

Sociologists have long speculated about the meaning of human faces for social interaction. In the 1950s, Erving Goffman developed the concept of facework to refer to the ways that human faces act as a template to invoke, process, and manage emotions. A core feature of our physical identity, our faces provide expressive information about our selves and how we want our identities to be perceived by others.

Given that our faces are mediums for processing and negotiating social interaction, it makes sense that Botox’s effect on facial expression would be particularly enticing to women, who from early childhood are taught to project cheerfulness and to disguise unhappiness. Male politicians and CEOs, for example, are expected to look pissed off, stern, and annoyed. However, when Hillary Clinton displays these same expressions, she is chastised for being unladylike, as undeserving of the male gaze, and criticized for disrupting the normative gender order. Women more so than men are penalized for looking speculative, judgmental, angry, or cross.

Nothing demonstrates this more than the recent viral pop-cultural idioms “resting bitch face.” For those unfamiliar with the not so subtly sexist phrase, “resting bitch face,” according to the popular site Urban Dictionary, is “a person, usually a girl, who naturally looks mean when her face is expressionless, without meaning to.” This same site defines its etymological predecessor, “bitchy resting face,” as “a bitchy alternative to the usual blank look most people have. This is a condition affecting the facial muscles, suffered by millions of women worldwide. People suffering from bitchy resting face (BRF) have the tendency look hostile and/or judgmental at rest.”

Resting bitch face and its linguistic cousin is nowhere near gender neutral. There is no name for men’s serious, pensive, and reserved expressions because we allow men these feelings. When a man looks severe, serious, or grumpy, we assume it is for good reason. But women are always expected to be smiling, aesthetically pleasing, and compliant. To do otherwise would be to fail to subordinate our own emotions to those of others, and this would upset the gendered status quo.

This is what the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “emotion labor,” a type of impression management, which involves manipulating one’s feelings to transmit a certain impression. In her now-classic study on flight attendants, Hochschild documented how part of the occupational script was for flight attendants to create and maintain the façade of positive appearance, revealing the highly gendered ways we police social performance. The facework involved in projecting cheerfulness and always smiling requires energy and, as any woman is well aware, can become exhausting. Hochschild recognized this and saw emotion work as a form of exploitation that could lead to psychological distress. She also predicted that showing dissimilar emotions from those genuinely felt would lead to the alienation from one’s feelings.

Enter Botox—a product that can seemingly liberate the face from its resting bitch state, producing a flattening of affect where the act of appearing introspective, inquisitive, perplexed, contemplative, or pissed off can be effaced and prevented from leaving a lasting impression. One reason Botox may be especially appealing to women is that it can potentially relieve them from having to work so hard to police their expressions.

Even more insidiously, Botox may actually change how women feel. Scientists have long suggested that facial expressions, like frowning or smiling, can influence emotion by contributing to a range of bodily changes that in turn produce subjective feelings. This theory, known in psychology as the “facial feedback hypothesis,” proposes that expression intensifies emotion, whereas suppression softens it. It follows that blocking negative expressions with Botox injections should offer some protection against negative feelings. A study confirmed the hypothesis.

Taken together, this works point to some of the principal attractions of Botox for women. Functioning as an emotional lobotomy of sorts, Botox can emancipate women from having to vigilantly police their facial expressions and actually reduce the negative feelings that produce them, all while simultaneously offsetting the psychological distress of alienation.

Dana Berkowitz is a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University in Baton Rogue where she teaches about gender, sexuality, families, and qualitative methods. Her book, Botox Nation: Changing the Face of America, will be out in January and can be pre-ordered now.

1Originally posted at Montclair Socioblog.

A girl takes a selfie, posts it to Instagram, and waits. She doesn’t have to wait long – a minute or two – before the likes and comments start rolling in. “Gorgeous,” “So pretty OMG,” “Stunning,” “Cutest.”

.
You can see why people might look at this and think: narcissism. You can see why they might think that new technologies – Instagram, cell phones (self-phones?) – have made kids today the most narcissistic generation in history.  In an earlier post, I expressed my skepticism about that claim. And, if we can generalize from an episode of This American Life last November, the selfie-Instagram-comments syndrome is not about narcissism – seeing yourself as standing shiningly above everyone else. It’s about fitting in – reading the social map, finding where you stand, and maybe changing that place.

Here is a slightly edited-down excerpt of the first part of the show. As Ira Glass says, if you have teenage girls in your life, you’re probably familiar with this. I don’t and I’m not, so I found it fascinating listening. (When the girls were reading their comments, I thought one of the girls, Jane, was saying “Hard eyes,” and I couldn’t imagine why that was a compliment. Turns out, she was saying “Heart eyes.”) Here’s Ira Glass’s distillation:

They want comments from other girls. This is not about sex. It’s not about boys. It’s about girls, and friendship. And it’s very repetitive – the same phrases, over and over.

All these moves – the posting, the commenting and liking – have a meaning that girls know intuitively but that must be decoded for outsiders like me and Ira.


.

Transcript:

Ira Glass: These comments are a very specific language that tells the girls all kinds of things.  And a lot of the meaning in the comments has nothing to do with the actual words. . .  It’s about who is doing the commenting . . .  Liking a photo means something totally different from commenting. You comment with someone you’re close to or someone you want to get close to.

Ella: It’s definitely a social obligation, because you want to let them know, and also let people who are seeing those, that I have a close relationship with this person, so close that I can comment on their pictures, like, this is so cute, or, you look so great here.

Jane:  Especially because we, like, just started high school, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. So you would comment on someone’s photo who you’re not really super close with or that you don’t know really well. And it’s sort of a statement, like, I want to be friends with you, or I want to get to know you, or like, I think you’re cool.

If someone that you don’t know very well commented on your photo, you – it’s sort of like an unspoken agreement that you have to comment back on their photo. Like when you’re making new friends, if they comment on your photo, you comment on their photo.

It’s hard to find narcissism or vanity in any of this. The girls are not preening, not basking in their triumphs, not nursing an ego wounded from some social slight. They are reading a constantly changing sociogram or network model of their world.

.


Transcript:

Ira Glass:  They’re only three months into high school, so there is a lot at stake right now.

Julia:  One of my, like, best friends posts a selfie. Maybe this isn’t, like, healthy. But I might go through the comments and see who she’s, like, really good friends with, just ’cause we’re in high school and there’’s that sense of jealousy between everyone.

Ira Glass:  Do you have people who you’re jealous of?

Jane: Yeah.

Julia:  Yeah. I definitely would. I go through, like, the comments that people see– like that people say, and like, I see what other people have said to other people.

Jane:  Yeah.

Julia:  Just to see, like, the whole– like, the whole social like map.

Jane:  Looking, mapping out your social world, seeing who’s with who, who’s hanging out with who, who is best friends with who.

Julia:  If you didn’t have it, like, I feel like I’d be missing so much. And it would just –

Jane:    Because you wouldn’t see what other people were saying. A lot goes on.

Ira Glass:  Well, no, that’s, I feel like, the thing that I’m understanding from this conversation, is like – it’s actually like, you’re getting a picture of your entire social world and who’s up and who’s down and who’s close to who, and it’s like you’re getting a diagram of where everybody stands with everybody else.

Jane:  Yeah.

Ella:  Yeah.

Jane:  Definitely. Definitely.

Ira Glass: As it changes in real time, every day, every 10 minutes.

Ella: Yeah.

Jane:  Yeah. Everyone can see it.

Julia:  It’s crazy.

If you look at the individual –a girl posting a selfie and reading the laudatory comments – you see a personality trait, narcissism. But the behavior that looks like narcissism is really an aspect of the social structure (girls’ friendships networks) and the institution those networks are embedded in (school).

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

1In his speech accepting the Republican nomination for President, Donald Trump said (my emphasis):

…our plan will put America First. Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo. As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect.

Donald Trump’s insistence that we put “America First” hardly sounds harmful or irrational on its face. To be proud and protective of one’s country sounds like something good, even inevitable.  Americans are, after all, Americans. Who else would we put first?

But nationalism — a passionate investment in one’s country over and above others — is neither good nor neutral. Here are some reasons why it’s dangerous:

  • Nationalism is a form of in-group/out-group thinking. It encourages the kind of “us” vs. “them” attitude that drives sports fandom, making people irrationally committed to one team. When the team wins, they feel victorious (even though they just watched), and they feel pleasure in others’ defeat. As George Orwell put it:

A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige… his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations.

  • Committed to winning at all costs, with power-seeking and superiority as the only real goal, nationalists feel justified in hurting the people of other countries. Selfishness and a will to power — instead of morality, mutual benefit, or long-term stability — becomes the driving force of foreign policy. Broken agreements, violence, indifference to suffering, and other harms to countries and their peoples destabilize global politics. As the Washington Post said yesterday in its unprecedented editorial board opinion on Donald Trump, “The consequences to global security could be disastrous.”
  • Nationalism also contributes to internal fragmentation and instability. It requires that we decide who is and isn’t truly part of the nation, encouraging exclusionary, prejudiced attitudes and policies towards anyone within our borders who is identified as part of “them.” Trump has been clearly marking the boundaries of the real America for his entire campaign, excluding Mexican Americans, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, and possibly even women. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted on the night of Trump’s acceptance speech:

  • A nationalist leader will have to lie and distort history in order to maintain the illusion of superiority. A nationalist regime requires a post-truth politics, one that makes facts irrelevant in favor of emotional appeals. As Dr. Ali Mohammed Naqvi explained:

To glorify itself, nationalism generally resorts to suppositions, exaggerations, fallacious reasonings, scorn and inadmissible self-praise, and worst of all, it engages in the distortion of history, model-making and fable-writing. Historical facts are twisted to imaginary myths as it fears historical and social realism.

  • Thoughtful and responsive governance interferes with self-glorification, so all internal reflection and external criticism must be squashed. Nationalist leaders attack and disempower anyone who questions the nationalist program and aim to destroy social movements. After Trump’s acceptance speech, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullers responded: “He… threaten[ed] the vast majority of this country with imprisonment, deportation and a culture of abject fear.” Anyone who isn’t on board, especially if they are designated as a “them,” must be silenced.

When Americans say “America is the greatest country on earth,” that’s nationalism. When other countries are framed as competitors instead of allies and potential allies, that’s nationalism. When people say “America first,” expressing a willfulness to cause pain and suffering to citizens of other countries if it is good for America, that’s nationalism. And that’s dangerous. It’s committing to one’s country’s preeminence and doing whatever it takes, however immoral, unlawful, or destructive, to further that goal.

.

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.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Most people agree that when this election is over, Trump will have changed American politics. Bigly, perhaps. But one of the more ironic changes may be that he caused the most conservative sectors of the electorate to relax their views on the connection between a politician’s private life and his fitness for public office. (Yes, “his.” Their ideas about the importance of a woman’s private sexual life may not have evolved in a similar way.)

Call it “motivated morality.” That sounds much better than hypocrisy. It’s like “motivated perception” – unconsciously adjusting your perceptions so that the facts fit with your ideology. But with motivated morality, you change your moral judgments.

For religious conservatives, Donald Trump presents quite a challenge. It’s the sex. One of the things that conservatives are conservative about is sex, and Trump’s sexual language and behavior clearly fall on the side of sin. What to do? Conservatives might try for motivated cognition and refuse to believe the women who were the recipients of Trumps kissing, groping, and voyeurism. That’s difficult when Trump himself is on the record claiming to have done all these things, and making those claims using decidedly unChristian language.

Instead, they have changed their judgment about the link between groping and governing. Previously, they had espoused “moral clarity” – a single principle applied unbendingly to all situations. Good is good, evil is evil. If a man is immoral in his private life, he will be immoral or worse as a public official.

Now they favor “situational morality,” the situation in this case being the prospect of a Clinton victory. So rather than condemn Trump absolutely, they say that, although he is out of line, they will vote for him and encourage others to do likewise in order to keep Hillary out of the White House. For example, in a USA Today op-ed, Diann Catlin, a “Bible-thumping etiquette teacher” says:

I like God’s ways. … I also know that he wants discerning believers to take part in government. … God has always used imperfect people for his glory.

God uses people like Trump and like me who are sinners but whose specific issues, such as the life of the unborn child, align with his word.

She includes the “we’re all sinners” trope that’s so popular now among the Trump’s Christian supporters (funny how they never mention that when the topic is Bill Clinton’s infidelities or Hillary’s e-mails). More important is the implication that even a sinner can make good governmental decisions. That’s an idea that US conservatives used to dismiss as European amorality. In government, they would insist, “character” is everything.

It’s not just professional conservatives who have crossed over to the view that sex and politics are separate spheres and that a person can be sinful in one and yet virtuous in the other. Ordinary conservatives and Evangelicals have also (to use the word of the hour) pivoted.

Five years ago, the Public Religion Research Institute at Brookings asked people whether someone who had committed immoral acts in their private life could still be effective in their political or professional life. Nationwide, 44% said Yes. PRRI asked the same question this year. The Yes vote had risen to 61%. But the move to compartmentalize sin was most pronounced among those who were most conservative.

1

The unchurched or “unaffiliated” didn’t change much in five years. But White Catholics and mainline Protestants both became more tolerant of private immorality. And among the most religiously conservative, the White evangelical Protestants, that percentage more than doubled. They went from being the least accepting to being the most accepting.

As with religion, so with political views.
8

People of all political stripes became more accepting, but when it came to judging a privately immoral person in public life, Republicans, like White evangelicals, went from least tolerant to most tolerant.

What could have happened?

Flickr photo by Darron Birgenheier.
Flickr photo by Darron Birgenheier.

There’s no absolute proof that it was the Donald that made the difference. But those White evangelicals support him over Hillary by better than four to one. Those who identify as Republicans favor Trump by an even greater margin. There may be some other explanation, but for now, I’ll settle for the idea that in order to vote for Trump, they had to keep their judgment of him as a politician separate from their judgment of his sexual behavior – a separation they would not have made five years ago.

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