social psychology

Originally Posted at Discoveries

After the 2016 Presidential election in the United States, Brexit in the UK, and a wave of far-right election bids across Europe, white supremacist organizations are re-emerging in the public sphere and taking advantage of new opportunities to advocate for their vision of society. While these groups have always been quietly organizing in private enclaves and online forums, their renewed public presence has many wondering how they keep drawing members. Recent research in American Sociological Review by Pete SimiKathleen BleeMatthew DeMichele, and Steven Windisch sheds light on this question with a new theory—people who try to leave these groups can get “addicted” to hate, and leaving requires a long period of recovery.

Photo by Dennis Skley, Flickr CC

The authors draw on 89 life history interviews with former members of white supremacist groups. These interviews were long, in-depth discussions of their pasts, lasting between four and eight hours each. After analyzing over 10,000 pages of interview transcripts, the authors found a common theme emerging from the narratives. Membership in a supremacist group took on a “master status”—an identity that was all-encompassing and touched on every part of a member’s life. Because of this deep involvement, many respondents described leaving these groups like a process of addiction recovery. They would experience momentary flashbacks of hateful thoughts, and even relapses into hateful behaviors that required therapeutic “self talk” to manage.

We often hear about new members (or infiltrators) of extremist groups getting “in too deep” to where they cannot leave without substantial personal risk. This research helps us understand how getting out might not be enough, because deep group commitments don’t just disappear when people leave.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

From Pizzagate to more plausible stories of palace intrigue, U.S. politics has more than a whiff of conspiracy in the air these days. In sorting fact from fiction, why do some people end up believing conspiracy theories? Social science research shows that we shouldn’t think about these beliefs like delusions, because the choice to buy in stems from real structural and psychological conditions that can affect us all.

For example, research in political science shows that people who know a lot about politics, but also show low levels of generalized trust, are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. It isn’t just partisan, either, both liberals and conservatives are equally likely to believe conspiracy theories—just different ones.

In sociology, research also shows how bigger structural factors elevate conspiracy concern. In an article published in Socius earlier this year, Joseph DiGrazia examined Google search trends for two major conspiracy theories between 2007 and 2014: inquiries about the Illuminati and concern about President Obama’s birth and citizenship.

DiGrazia looked at the state-level factors that had the strongest and most consistent relationships with search frequency: partisanship and employment. States with higher unemployment rates had higher search rates about the Illuminati, and more Republican states had higher searches for both conspiracies throughout the Obama administration.

These studies show it isn’t correct to treat conspiracy beliefs as simply absurd or irrational—they flare up among reasonably informed people who have lower trust in institutions, often when they feel powerless in the face of structural changes across politics and the economy.

Evan Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Minnesota. You can follow him on Twitter.

ALERT: I am currently recruiting men to consent to a confidential interview study about what it feels like to be vulnerable to pain as a result of accidental or purposeful blows to the testicles. If you are over the age of 18 and would be willing to be interviewed, I want to hear your story. Please email Dr. Lisa Wade at lwade@oxy.edu.

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In 2015 I wrote an essay in which I speculated about why we don’t see men kicking each other in the balls more often. We leave no stones unturned here at SocImages, folks.

I argued that men don’t kick each other in the balls because it would reveal to everyone an inherent and undeniable biological weakness in every man, not just the man getting kicked.  In other words, it’s a secret pact to protect the myth of masculine superiority.

I expected a reaction, but I was genuinely surprised at what transpired. In public — in the comments — men debated strategy, arguing that men don’t kick each other in the balls because it’s actually a difficult blow to land or would escalate the fight. But in private — in my email inbox — men sent me hushed messages of you-are-so-right-though.

This is interesting because people rarely bother to go to the trouble of googling me, finding my email address, and writing me a note. The comments thread is right there and there’s a link to my twitter account at the end of the post. Most people criticize or compliment me publicly. Moreover, the emails have never stopped coming. I get one now every couple months — almost two years later — which I think means that ball kicking is something men (and it’s always men) are quietly seeking information about.

So, what do they say in private to me?

The one I received today was characteristic and the guy who wrote it gave me permission to share some of it. I’ll call him “Guy.”

First, Guy agreed that the vulnerability of having testicles is distressing to him specifically because he has been taught that boys and men are supposed to be stronger than girls and women.

Boys usually think of themselves as being tough and we want to be tough and tougher than girls especially. The idea that a girl could hurt a big strong boy like me is ridiculous right. But then I got older and learned about testicles and that girls didnt have them and i was embarrassed that I had a weak spot and they didn’t.

Second, he acknowledged that knowing that other people know about this vulnerability adds to the stress of having it.

I always hate in movies when a guy gets hit in the balls and drops especially if a woman did the kicking and if I am watching it with women. I don’t want anyone to know I have a weak spot or to acknowledge it. I still try to workout and be big and strong but I always feel vulnerable down there. My older sister and i used to play fight and i started getting bigger than her and winning. Then one time she faked a kick to my groin and i jumped back and covered myself. She had this self satisfied smurk on her face like ya dont mess with me and i never did again.

This vulnerability, Guy emphasizes, isn’t just a trivial thing; it’s everything. It affects how he feels about his whole body (“your only as strong as your weakest link”) and it’s psychologically consuming (“I hate knowing this”).

Your only as strong as your weakest link and guys have the weakest link on the body. I hate knowing this and I’m afraid women realize this and I think alot of guys feel the same even if they dont admit it.

“They dont admit it,” Guy writes, which means it’s a secret shame. And, like many of the men who’ve emailed me, he thanks me for putting it out there in public and says that it’s a relief to actually talk about it.

Anyway I think you really hit a nerve with this article and I think its kinda therapeutic to talk about it cause I usually keep it to myself. Keep up the good work and Take Care!

I think this is amazing.

I’m touched, first of all, by the emotional vulnerability that Guy and the other (mostly young) men who’ve emailed me have shown. Behind all of the pretending like they’re a “big strong boy,” these guys are nervous, worried that their front is going to be exposed and everyone is going to see them as a fraud and a failure. Not a Real Man at all.

In fact, they worry that everyone already sees them that way. The sister’s smirk tells Guy, in no uncertain terms, that his front is transparent. “I won’t expose you,” it says. “Not today. But I can and we both know it.” No matter how hard he tries — no matter how big his biceps or bank account, no matter how corner his office is or how hot his wife — he’s got those goddamn testicles and they’re right there.

Guy explains that it makes him want to compensate. He works out to be “big and strong.” But it’ll never be enough. He says, “I always feel vulnerable down there.” He feels vulnerable anyway. There’s really nothing he can do.

This is telling us something profound about what it feels like to be a man in America today. Told to live up to an impossible standard of invulnerability; they inevitably feel like failures. Told specifically to be more invulnerable than (and not vulnerable to) women, by biological accident, they’re not. What a cruel twist of the testicles. It hurts.

And I wonder how much of what men do in their lives is a response to this psychic injury. How many of Donald Trump’s shenanigans, for example, have to do with the fact that he knows, and he knows that everyone knows, that someone could just drop him with a kick to the balls at any time? It sounds absurd to blame the risk of nuclear war on Trump’s testicles, but these young men are telling me that, right around puberty — as they are graduating from boys to men, doubling down on their difference from girls and women, and being told that to earn others’ esteem they have to be bigger and stronger — they have a disturbing revelation that compels them to embark on a lifetime of proving they’re not weak.

Until we all agree to let men be human, they’re going to keep living lives of quiet desperation. And the rest of us have to keep fearing what they will do to avoid being exposed.

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.

“Freedom of opinion does not exist in America,” said DeTocqueville 250 years ago. He might have held the same view today.

But how could a society that so values freedom and individualism be so demanding of conformity?  I had blogged about this in 2010 with references to old sitcoms, but for my class this semester I needed something more recent. Besides, Cosby now carries too much other baggage. ABC’s “black-ish”* came to the rescue.

The idea I was offering in class was, first, that our most cherished American values can conflict with one another. For example, our desire for family-like community can clash with our value on independence and freedom. Second, the American solution to this conflict between individual and group is often what Claude Fischer calls “voluntarism.”  We have freedom – you can voluntarily choose which groups to belong to. But once you choose to be a member, you have to conform.  The book I had assigned my class (My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan*) uses the phrase “voluntary conformism.”

In a recent episode of “black-ish,” the oldest daughter, Zoey, must choose which college to go to. She has been accepted at NYU, Miami, Vanderbilt, and Southern Cal. She leans heavily towards NYU, but her family, especially her father Dre, want her to stay close to home. The conflict is between Family – family togetherness, community – and Independence. If Zoey goes to NYU, she’ll be off on her own; if she stays in LA, she’ll be just a short drive from her family. New York also suggests values on Achievement, Success, even Risk-taking (“If I can make it there” etc.)

Zoey decides on NYU, and her father immediately tries to undermine that choice, reminding her of how cold and dangerous it will be. It’s typical sitcom-dad buffonery, and his childishness tips us off that this position, imposing his will, is the wrong one. Zoey, acting more mature, simply goes out and buys a bright red winter coat.

The argument for Independence, Individual Choice, and Success is most clearly expressed by Pops (Dre’s father, who lives with them), and it’s the turning point in the show. Dre and his wife are complaining about the kids growing up too fast. Pops says, “Isn’t this what you wanted? Isn’t this why you both worked so hard — movin’ to this White-ass neighborhood, sendin’ her to that White-ass school so she could have all these White-ass opportunities? Let. Her. Go.”

That should be the end of it. The final scene should be the family bidding a tearful goodbye to Zoey at LAX. But a few moments later, we see Zoey talking to her two younger siblings (8-year old twins – Jack and Diane). They remind her of how much family fun they have at holidays. Zoey has to tell them that New York is far, so she won’t be coming back till Christmas – no Thanksgiving, no Halloween.

Jack reminds her about the baby that will arrive soon. “He won’t even know you.”

In the next scene, Zoey walks into her parents room carrying the red winter coat. “I need to return this.”

“Wrong size?” asks her father.

“Wrong state.”

She’s going to stay in LA and go to USC.

Over a half-century ago, David McClelland wrote that a basic but unstated tenet of American culture is: “I want to freely choose to do what others expect me to do.” Zoey has chosen to do what others want her to do – but she has made that individual choice independently. It’s “voluntary conformism,” and it’s the perfect American solution (or at least the perfect American sitcom solution).

* For those totally unfamiliar with the show, the premise is this: Dre Johnson, a Black man who grew up in a working-class Black neighborhood of LA, has become a well-off advertising man, married a doctor (her name is Rainbow, or usually Bow), and moved to a big house in an upscale neighborhood. They have four children, and the wife is pregnant with a fifth.

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

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Did Donald Trump’s campaign and election cry havoc and unleash the dogs of racism?

Last June, hauling out Sykes and Matza’s concept of “neutralization,” I argued that Trump’s constant denigration of “political correctness” allowed his supporters to neutralize norms against racism. If the denigration of political correctness means that the people who condemn racism are wrong or bad, then what they are condemning must be OK. The logic might not be impeccable, but it works. I argued that I wasn’t sure that Trump had caused an increase in racist attitudes, but he gave people a license to express those attitudes.

Aziz Ansari made a similar point on Saturday Night Live  the day after the inauguration. (Apologies if you have to wait through an ad.)

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Ansari’s version is much better than mine, and it reached a slightly larger audience. But there’s another important difference. I was talking about the message Trump supporters took from Trump himself before the election. Ansari is talking about the message they got from the electorate. The election changed their perceptions of the norms about expressing anti-immigrant views.

It’s as though minds of half the country had been clouded by “pluralistic ignorance.” That’s the scenario where each person thinks X but assumes that everyone else thinks Y, so everyone keeps their true ideas to themselves. Then something happens that reveals those previously hidden preferences, and suddenly everyone feels liberated. From the Trump supporters’ perspective, Trump was Dorothy throwing a bucket of water to dissolve the Wicked Witch of Political Correctness, and now all the Munchkins were free to express their feelings about Mexicans and Muslims (and perhaps others).

The 20% increase in hate crimes after the election certainly suggests that racists felt liberated by the election. Unfortunately, because of the uncontrolled variables and the small sample size of just one candidate winning one election, this bit of evidence is hardly conclusive.

But we now have some experimental evidence on the topic. In the two weeks before the election, three economists surveyed Mechanical Turkers in eight very Red states. The MTurkers were asked, in addition to other on-topic questions, if they would authorize the economists to make a donation on their behalf to a strongly anti-immigrant group, FAIR.  Mturkers were told, “The founder of FAIR is John Tanton, author of `The Immigration Invasion’ who wrote ‘I’ve come to the point of view that for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.’”

For half the MTurkers, the donation question included this:

Note: just like any other answer to this survey, also your donation decision will be completely anonymous. No one, not even the researchers, will be able to match your decision to your name. [emphasis in original]

The other half were told:

Important: in order to ensure the quality of the data collected, a member of the research team might personally contact you to verify your answers to the next question and the following ones. [emphasis in original]

In addition, some of the people were told that Trump was certain to win their state. Others were given no information.

The results strongly support the idea that norms – or at least people’s perceptions of the norms – make a big difference. People who thought their choice would be public were much less likely to make the anti-immigrant donation – 34% vs. 54%. But that difference held true only for people who were not told how popular Trump was in their state. Among the people who were told basically, “Trump is a sure thing to win your state,” knowing that their donation would be public (i.e., known to the surveyors) made no difference in their willingness to donate.

If the researchers had stopped there, they would have been able to say

  • there seems to be a norm against giving money to anti-immigrant groups
  • the knowledge of that norm makes people less willing to make a donation to blatantly racist anti-immigrant group if even one stranger can know about that donation
  • if people think that many others in their state support an anti-immigrant candidate, they no longer feel that they need to keep their anti-immigrant views to themselves

Thanks the results of the election, though, they didn’t have to stop there. The gave the researchers a natural experiment to find out if the norms – or at least perceptions of the norms – had changed. Had Trump’s victory caused the scales of pluralistic ignorance to fall from the eyes of these Red-state Turkers?

The answer was yes. The election had the same effect as did the information about Trump support in the person’s state. It obliterated the difference between the public and private conditions.

To people who were reluctant to let their agreement with FAIR be known, Trump’s victory said, “It’s OK. You can come out of the closet. You’re among friends, and there are more of us than you thought.”

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

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

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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 University of California, Santa Barbara. 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.