Category Archives: emotions

Stress: how it can be good for you

By changing the way you think, you can deal with stress more effectively and use it to serve your goals.

A friend complains about being stressed: there’s a deadline at work, one of the kids is sick, the car broke down and she had a nasty argument with a neighbour. Stressful indeed. So the usual goal is to reduce stress, to avoid it. This seems like common sense.

However, when it comes to physical activity, the idea of reducing stress has long been discredited. Exercise is good for you, as long as it’s not too much. For athletes, training is designed to provide the amount of stress on muscles to build them up without causing injury.

Lack of physical stress is disastrous for the body. Lying in bed for day after day is a health hazard, with muscle wastage and other adverse consequences.

If the body needs optimal stress for best performance, what about the mind? Are there actually advantages to stress? The answer to these questions, according to Kelly McGonigal, is an emphatic yes, as indicated by the title of her book The upside of stress: why stress is good for you (and how to get good at it).

McGonigal spent many years recommending the usual advice to reduce stress. Then she was stimulated to rethink her position and started looking into research on the benefits of stress.

McGonigal writes in an engaging fashion. She draws on her personal experience and tells about research findings in an accessible way, often providing stories about the researchers or about people who have been changed by adopting a different approach to stress.

Think differently

Here’s the most amazing finding. If you think that stress is good for you, it will actually become better for you.

McGonigal cites research by Alia Crum. In one of Crum’s studies, one group of hotel housekeepers was told that the physical work they did on the job was a form of exercise and good for them; the other group was told only that physical exercise was good for health. Then after a period of four weeks, each group’s physiological parameters were measured. The group that thought of work as exercise did better, including losing weight and body fat and reducing blood pressure. Simply thinking about their work differently changed its effect on their bodies.

Another typical experiment goes like this. Two groups of subjects are prepared for a stressful experience, for example giving a talk in front of a large audience. One group is given the usual advice that stress is not good for you and that they should to try to relax. The other group is told that stress is a useful tool. The group thinking positively about stress performs better according to independent judges.

Then there are physiological tests. One group, put into a stressful situation, is told in advance that they’ll feel nervous and should try to relax. The other group is told they’ll feel excited. The group that interprets stress as excitement actually has lower levels of biomarkers for harmful products.

The implication is that fearing and avoiding stress causes harm, whereas accepting and embracing stress can reduce its negative impacts and enable better performance.

Mindsets

These results reflect an important process: the influence of thinking on behaviour, in particular the role of a mindset, which is a framework for understanding the world, or oneself. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset described two ways of thinking about intelligence and performance. One is the fixed mindset, in which an individual sees performance as reflecting an innate capacity. The other is the growth mindset, in which performance is seen as reflecting effort. The growth mindset is far better for long-term improvement. People with a fixed mindset avoid challenges where they might fail, because failure might shake their belief about themselves, whereas people with a growth mindset see failure as indicating they need to work harder.

Mindsets about stress are similarly important. The key thing is that they affect behaviour in systematic ways. Believing stress is bad leads to efforts at distraction, getting rid of feelings (rather than addressing their source), drug use and withdrawal. In contrast, when people believe stress is beneficial, they accept the existence of stressful events, strategise, seek information and advice, address the source of stress and make the best of the situation.

Stress responses

McGonigal traces negative attitudes to stress to Hans Selye’s classic studies of the effects of stress on rats. They were highly traumatised, and these findings were interpreted by doctors and the public as indicating that stress should be avoided. This was not Selye’s intention, because there were important differences between the experiences of his rats and those of most people. Selye’s rats were exposed to electric shocks in a situation in which the shocks were unpredictable, unavoidable and meaningless. In contrast, the stresses that most people experience in their daily lives are fairly predictable, sometimes avoidable and often quite meaningful.

“Even in circumstances of great suffering, human beings have a natural capacity to find hope, exert choice, and make meaning. This is why in our own lives, the most common effects of stress include strength, growth, and resilience.” (p. 45)

One of the ways to benefit from stress is to recognise that it provides the resources to deal with situations. Stress commonly causes your heart rate to increase, your body to sweat and your attention to become focused. The trick is to realise that these responses are helpful for dealing with challenges: your attention is focused on the issue at hand, your senses are heightened, your energy is mobilised. So rather than trying to dampen the stress response by avoidance, it can be used to take action.

A second dimension of the stress response relates to interactions with others. To benefit from stress, the key is to get beyond the fight-or-flight options and instead adopt a “tend and befriend” response. This means to interact with others, to help others, to be sensitive to others’ emotions, and to defend them.

There is a third dimension to the stress response: it can help you learn and grow. The way your body responds to stress can help integrate experiences.

The first half of McGonigal’s book is about understanding stress, covering these three dimensions. The second half is about transforming stress, addressing the same three dimensions, describing ways to learn how to change stress from a negative to a positive. This involves exercises to use anxiety (a stress response) for achieving goals, to respond to stress by caring for others and thus build resilience, and to become stronger as a result of stress.

This last dimension can seem unfair. If you’re subject to traumatic experiences, why should the onus be on you to use this as a way of becoming stronger? McGonigal repeatedly emphasises that trauma is bad news: it has many downsides and should be avoided. But trauma is an inevitable part of most people’s lives, and it is worth knowing that it is possible to gain something from it. This is a matter of recognising the hardship involved but also trying to gain something from the experience.

Making attacks backfire

Over the past twenty years, I’ve heard from hundreds of individuals who are concerned about being sued for defamation. Some are worried that something they have said would open them to legal action. Others have received letters from lawyers demanding an apology and a payment for damages. A few have received a writ and are facing expensive court proceedings.

Many of them are frightened, even terrified. They are afraid they might be sued and end up losing their house. To say they are stressed is to put it mildly. They often don’t know what to do and, while looking for information, have stumbled across my website.

McGonigal’s approach to stress offers a different way of thinking about legal threats. Rather than fearing them, they sometimes can actually be welcomed because of the opportunity to try to make them counterproductive for the perpetrators. Truda Gray and I have written about how to use publicity and other means to make defamation threats and actions backfire.

In some cases, there is no easy option, but nonetheless there are options and they need to be carefully considered. The stress of being attacked can be used as a resource to generate courage, seek support and think strategically. Rather than cowering in fear, a better attitude is to think “Come and get me (and beware – you may regret it).”

More on mindsets

In some ways, McGonigal’s biggest challenge is people’s deep-seated beliefs that stress is bad. She is fighting an uphill battle, and experimental findings and stories will only go so far. What is really required is a change of mindset, to rethink stress and how to respond to it.


Kelly McGonigal

McGonigal reports quite a few studies of “mindset interventions.” These are typically group sessions lasting 30 minutes to a few hours designed to change the way people think about themselves and the world. Done well, a mindset intervention can lead to lasting changes in behaviour, for example improved academic performance.

This can be hard to believe. Teachers spend hundreds of hours with students trying to help them learn, and can react with scepticism to someone who says a short session can make a lasting difference. There’s another confounding factor: people whose mindsets are transformed don’t even remember the intervention. They think of things differently and do better because that is their new reality. No extra effort is needed.

If you want to change the way you react to stress, you can create your own personal mindset intervention. Get The Upside of Stress and read some of it. Then write down a brief account of how you could react to stress more positively. Then tell someone else about what you’ve read and how they could change their own reactions. That’s it. It’s not much, and can have lasting benefits.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Dalilah Reuben-Shemia for useful comments.

Understanding minds

Who and what do you think has a mind? Research provides fascinating insights.

The mind is where we experience the world and how we take action in relation to the world — or at least so it seems. Although every person’s mind is, in a sense, the most intimate part of their being, there is much that we don’t know about our own minds, and those of others.

Psychologists have been busy doing all sorts of studies about minds, including our assumptions about minds other than our own. If you’d like to read an engaging treatment in this area, I recommend The Mind Club by Daniel Wegner and Kurt Gray. The subtitle is informative: Who Thinks, What Feels, and Why It Matters.

You may know your own mind, but how can you be sure that other people have minds? They might be zombies! This leads to deep philosophical issues, but Wegner and Gray are more interested in practicalities. The easiest assumption is that most human adults think and have experiences. This part is easy. But what about the less obvious possibilities for having a mind?

Non-human animals: do they have minds? Your dog or cat for sure, but amoeba surely not. Then there are machines, including robots. Does your smartphone have a mind? Presumably not, but sometimes it seems convenient to think it does, especially when it starts giving trouble. Another challenging case involves people in a persistent vegetative state (a long-term coma), unable to communicate. It’s uncertain whether they are thinking.

Thinking doers and vulnerable feelers

To help understand these different categories, Wegner and Gray introduce two categories, agency and experience. A capable adult has agency, namely the capacity to initiate action, and can experience sensations and feelings, such as pain and elation. However, others may be classified as having only agency or only experience.

A baby, for example, has little capacity for agency but can certainly have experiences. On the other hand, most people think a robot can act but is unlikely to have feelings. It turns out, based on many experiments, that there is a basic dichotomy in the way most people think about other minds: they are perceived as either thinking doers or vulnerable feelers. This dichotomy has many ramifications.

Those seen as vulnerable feelers are usually treated with sympathy, even when they do bad things. Non-human animals such as kittens and puppies are usually treated as vulnerable feelers, so when they cause harm by biting or scratching they are seldom blamed, except when it is done to someone even more vulnerable, like a baby. On the other hand, some animals are seen as doers, like sharks.


A vulnerable feeler

“Our compassion for vulnerable moral patients translates into rage when they are harmed. People care when adults are injured, but they are incensed when children or animals suffer.” (p. 104)

One of the consequences of this dichotomy is that people who are either villains or heroes are perceived as less sensitive to pain. This can help to explain why so many people think it is acceptable to punish criminals severely, with long prison sentences and torture via extended isolation, even though criminologists have shown this is neither rehabilitative nor protective of the community.

Heroes are also seen as relatively imperious to pain. One study asked subjects whether pain should be inflicted on either a bank teller or Mother Teresa. Most said neither but, when forced to choose, selected Mother Teresa because she had more capacity to take it. She was seen as a thinking doer and hence less vulnerable to pain.

Whistleblowing and nonviolent action

Wendy Addison has pointed out the implications for whistleblowers, those people who speak out in the public interest. Employers commonly see whistleblowers as villains and subject them to reprisals. Members of the public, on the other hand, often see whistleblowers as heroes, but the trouble is that this makes them see more capable of handling the reprisals. Seeing whistleblowers as either villains or heroes may be a factor in the resistance to giving them financial rewards.

People who are disadvantaged due to disability, illness, harassment or assault can gain sympathy by being seen as vulnerable feelers. However, this has a disadvantage: they can be assumed not to have agency to respond to their situation, leading others to think of them in as objects of charity rather than having the capacity to take action.

Another possible application of the doer-feeler dichotomy is in relation to nonviolent action. When peaceful protesters come under attack by police, this can be seen as unfair and generate outrage. A video of students sitting in a protest and being pepper-sprayed by police became famous. The students were not threatening anyone, so to many viewers harming them seemed outrageous.

However, sometimes protesters are seen as heroes, especially when they undertake more energetic actions such as chaining themselves to bulldozers or swimming in front of ships. This can turn them from vulnerable feelers to thinking doers and make it seem like they are better able to endure pain and bad treatment.


Robots are seen as doers, with little feeling

Wegner and Gray introduce a sequence of possible minds: animals, machines, patients (vulnerable feelers, without agency), enemies, the silent (people who cannot communicate), groups, the dead, God and the self. Each one of these topics, comprising the chapters in the book, provides fascinating insights.

Dyadic completion

One of the psychological processes that helps explain how people think about minds is called dyadic completion. If there is an injustice, people believe someone must be responsible. Pure randomness is not satisfying psychologically. Wegner and Gray describe a case from 1457 in France in which a pig ate a baby, and the pig was put on trial. Something terrible had happened and so the pig was attributed agency and responsibility.

Dyadic completion is also involved in many conspiracy theories. When something bad happens, the normal explanation may seem inadequate. For many in the US, the 9/11 attacks were so horrific and traumatic that it wasn’t enough to blame only the 19 individuals who piloted the aeroplanes. They assumed something bigger and more sinister must be involved.

Your own mind

Of all the minds in the world, the one we think we know the most is our own self. Yet psychologists have carried out numerous experiments showing that self-knowledge is often quite limited. People do things but often misconceive the reasons why they do them. Pioneering studies by Benjamin Libet showed that when people make a decision, for example to push a button, the brain is activated a fraction of a second before the intention enters the conscious mind. The implication is that the conscious feeling that you are making a decision is an illusion: it is a rationalisation for what the unconscious mind has already decided.

The Mind Club is written in an entertaining fashion and is filled with all sorts of observations about minds. You can learn a lot even if you don’t agree with every point raised by the authors. The book is a highly successful popularisation. I can recommend it to you knowing that whether you decide to read it is not necessarily something you can consciously control!


Daniel Wegner

“Trying to perceive your dead mind is paradoxical, because you have to perceive a state that is incapable of perception – which is impossible while you are currently perceiving.” (p. 243)


Kurt Gray

“Despite the ultimate uncertainty surrounding the question of other minds, it is likely that everyone you know has the same powerful emotions and deep thoughts as you do. Unfortunately, your own collection of memories, thoughts, and feelings – your mind – prevents you from truly appreciating that fact. Being one mind prevents you from truly appreciating the minds of others.” (p. 321)

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

The advantages of negative emotions

Happiness is a good thing, but there are also advantages in other emotional states.

 

Most people would like to be happy, and strive for it in various ways, everything from eating chocolate and taking holidays to helping others. But in the pursuit of happiness, is something being missed? Are there actually some advantages in being unhappy?

From 2009 to 2016, Chris Barker and I coordinated a course on happiness. We assigned weekly readings, most of which were about activities or ways of thinking that research shows increase happiness, for example physical activity, gratitude, mindfulness and optimism. To give a bit of balance to the readings, and encourage students to question the dominant orientation, Chris and I wanted to include a text providing a critique of research on happiness. However, we had a hard time finding a suitable reading. Most of the critiques of positive psychology are written in a technical and difficult-to-understand style and were not suitable for our course, which included students from engineering, science, law, education and other fields, with many international students.

Too late, I discovered the ideal source: The Upside of Your Dark Side, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener, published in 2014. The authors are psychologists who have written extensively on wellbeing. They are fully aware and supportive of the goal of being happy and all the things that contribute to improving happiness. However, they became concerned about an emerging obsession with being happy, an obsession that obscures the advantages of other mental states. In short, they think it is important to be aware of, and sometimes embrace, the “dark side” of human emotions.

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a pleasure to read: clearly written without jargon, filled with examples and anecdotes, logically organised, thoroughly referenced and provocative throughout. It is a powerful counter to the usual one-sided emphasis on positive emotional states.

Benefits of the dark side

You might imagine that being unhappy, pessimistic, mindless and manipulative are things to be avoided. It depends, though, on the circumstances. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener cite lots of research showing the advantages of these apparently negative states. Consider, for example, whether it’s better to be happy when on the job. If the task requires close concentration and attention to detail, then happiness can hinder performance. Air traffic controllers, for example, need to be alert and always aware of possible danger. A happy atmosphere would undermine their job performance and put lives at stake.

More generally, it is valuable to be aware of negative emotions, because they provide information that can give courage, stimulate alertness to dangers, and enable creativity. Being positive all the time can hide the information available in negative emotions, and for example lead to poor choices. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener advocate embracing negative states (not wallowing in them) as part of the skill of emotional agility, meaning the capacity to use a variety of emotions as tools chosen for their value in specific situations.

Mindfulness, which involves being aware of your own situation, including your own emotions, is rightly touted at a route to deep satisfaction and a counter to cascades of intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness enables maintaining a distance from negative feelings like anger and anxiety, so they cause less damage.

            Kashdan and Biswas-Diener are well aware of the benefits of mindfulness, but they also point to the benefits of mindlessness. The unconscious mind is a powerful tool if used the right way. For example, in making a difficult decision when multiple factors are involved, for example choosing where to live or what job to take, studies have shown that making a decision based on intuition can be better than one based on a careful, conscious consideration of all the information. Furthermore, it may be best to first make a careful study of the options, then to be distracted (mindless) for a period before making a quick, intuitive decision. The point is to harness both the mindful and mindless capacities of the mind.

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say there are times when it is possible to take advantage of anger, Machiavellianism, narcissism and even psychopathy. Psychopaths, who are characterised as having no empathy, do not have a good reputation, often being put in the same category as serial killers. However, many psychopathic traits are functional in specific situations. For example, you probably want your brain surgeon to be focused entirely on the delicate task and not disturbed by feelings of empathy. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener also cite research showing that in some situations when a person needs help, psychopaths are more helpful than others.

            Similarly, narcissistic personality disorder – having grandiose ideas of personal importance and intense anger at being criticised – is not attractive. Yet there are some positive aspects to narcissism, for example a drive to achieve so as to measure up to self-evaluations and to attract praise from others.

Other dark sides

Looking at the benefits of anger, manipulation and other supposedly negative aspects of human personality and behaviour raises the question of whether there are any “dark sides” that should be totally avoided, such as hatred, sadism, greed and envy. Certainly they can cause severe damage, as documented by Joseph H. Berke in The Tyranny of Malice.

Consider greed, the desire for more, especially for more than others have. “Greed is good” has become the mantra of winners in the neoliberal economy, so in this context greed might be necessary for success. But what about individuals who desire a more egalitarian society? Are there still circumstances in which individual greed is part of reaching one’s full potential? Or is it simply greedy to pursue self-interest at the expense of others?

Envy is another dark emotion. It has a positive aspect: it can stimulate efforts to emulate the person who is envied. The more destructive side of envy is revealed in efforts to denigrate, undermine or even destroy the envied person. Envy is thus assuaged not by personal achievement but by tearing down envied others. Even so, this potentially has a positive function. In a highly unequal society, in which those who are privileged exploit the underclass, envy can contribute to revolutionary change.

            Expressing gratitude is one of the simplest and most powerful ways to increase happiness. Research shows that thinking of a few things you are thankful for just once a week can lead to significant improvements in happiness. This is certainly far easier than doubling your income. Yet might there be occasions when it is better to be ungrateful? Perhaps when someone is showering you with favours, you suspect they are trying to manipulate you. Withholding gratitude might make you more alert to scams.

Then there is physical activity, shown to be one of the most reliable mood-boosters available. Too much exercise can be damaging, to be sure, but what about the opposite of exercise: laziness? Are there occasions when laziness is beneficial? Anyone who exercises regularly needs to recover, and being lazy is an opportunity to do this. But what is the benefit of laziness for couch potatoes who avoid activity at all costs?

Forgiveness – better thought of as emotionally letting go rather than sanctioning another’s actions – enables a person to escape damaging thought patterns. However, the pursuit of justice is sometimes served by remaining vengeful for years or even decades.


Todd Kashdan

The whole self

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a valuable antidote to the one-sided glorification of positive states like happiness, altruism and mindfulness. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener say that a person who is “whole” is able to take advantage of negative as well as positive states. The subtitle of their book states this: Why being your whole self – not just your “good” self – drives success and fulfillment.

            They are careful to say that in most circumstances, maybe about 80% of the time, the “good” states are desirable; for the remaining 20%, using your “dark side” can be advantageous to both you and others. By referring to 80% and 20%, they are really saying to draw on negative emotions just occasionally. They also note that “negative” states like anger and selfishness shouldn’t be faked. To obtain full benefits, they need to be genuine, just kept on a leash.


Robert Biswas-Diener

The whole community?

Kashdan and Biswas-Diener, like most figures in the field of positive psychology, focus on the individual. They give little sense of how emotions are linked to social arrangements. In part this reflects their US orientation and the fact that most psychological research is carried out in affluent countries, often with university students.

Research indicates that narcissism has been increasing in the US for decades: surveys of university students reveal that personal goals are now more commonly to make money and become individually successful rather than to serve broader community goals. In this context of competitive individualism, linked to the rise of neoliberalism, displaying narcissistic traits can be useful for the individual, and those who are too altruistic can be easily exploited. But in a different sort of society, drawing on negative personality traits may not be so advantageous, or may be required less often.

            Looking at the social function of emotions and behaviours brings up the challenging issue of how best to bring about positive social change. If the goal is a more caring society, with greater equality and support for those who are most vulnerable, what is the role of anger, manipulation and unhappiness? There are no easy answers.

The Upside of Your Dark Side is a valuable treatment because it raises questions about things taken for granted. It can lead to a philosophy of moderation or balance. If I were again teaching a happiness course, I would assign one or two extracts from The Upside of Your Dark Side, and then hope to learn more from the response of the students.

“Being whole is about being open and accommodating of all parts to your personality: the light and dark passengers, the strengths and weaknesses, the successes and failures. To this we add the combination of a pleasurable and profoundly meaningful life, and the embrace of both novelty and stability. Acknowledging seemingly contradictory aspects of the self will increase the power and influence you wield in the present, and the vitality, agility, and perseverance you can bring to the life tasks that lie ahead.” (p. 213)

Brian Martin
mailto:bmartin@uow.edu.au

Subtle prejudice

Many people sincerely believe they are not prejudiced. Research shows, though, that subtle prejudice is quite common. Furthermore, getting rid of it is very difficult.

Unconscious-Bias-Part-5

There are all sorts of prejudice, on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, occupation and various other characteristics. Some people are overtly prejudiced, for example expressing antagonism towards gays or refusing to say hello to neighbours of another nationality. However, many types of prejudice are less acceptable than before. In some circles, racist language will alienate listeners.

But can you be prejudiced even if you think you’re not? There’s a way to find out whether you have this sort of subtle, unconscious prejudice. Take the Implicit Association Test (IAT). But let me warn you. If you like to think of yourself as unbiased, be prepared for a possible shock when you take the IAT.

Implicit_association_test

Actually, there are many versions of the IAT, covering race, gender, age and other dimensions. Let’s say you take the age IAT. You look at faces of people and, as quickly as possible, classify them as young or old. You look at words and, as quickly as possible, classify them as good or bad. Then you look at interwoven sequences of faces and words, and classify them the same way. The online IAT calculates how long it takes you to do these tasks. If it takes you longer to respond to certain sequences, the implication is that you have an implicit bias against old people. It’s very common, and worldwide.

If you want to learn more about subtle prejudice, read the book Blindspot by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. It’s about the IAT and much more. Greenwald developed the IAT; Banaji was his student and has collaborated with him for many years.

Blindspot

The disturbing finding is that most people who believe they are unprejudiced are actually biased, unconsciously. Greenwald and Banaji admit they are too, even though they wish they weren’t.

Banaji is from India and was dismayed to discover, via the IAT, that she had an unconscious bias against non-whites. The IAT reveals that many women hold, unconsciously, the gender stereotype of male = work, female = family. Many US blacks have an unconscious bias against blacks, and so forth.

Mahzarin Banaji
Mahzarin Banaji

How could this be? The two-minds model of human mental functioning  helps explain. According to a standard view in psychology, humans have two minds, in other words two independent mental systems. One is the rational mind, used for much conscious thinking. It is slow, careful and requires effort. The other system is the intuitive mind, which operates rapidly, automatically and usually out of consciousness.

When you meet someone new, your intuitive mind rapidly classifies the person in terms of categories, including sex, ethnicity, age and social status. This happens out of conscious awareness. This automatic classification process can also result in judgements and changes in behaviour.

The IAT, by requiring rapid responses, taps into the intuitive mind and its biases. Conscious effort by the rational mind is required to overcome automatic responses, and the more effort that is required, the slower your response. The slower response is detectable and used to assess your level of bias, perhaps none but perhaps more than you expect.

As Blindspot‘s subtitle – Hidden Biases of Good People – suggests, Banaji and Greenwald are concerned about people who want to be unbiased, and who usually believe they are unbiased, but who actually have subtle prejudices.

You might want to dismiss your results on the IAT as not reflecting anything serious. Countering this, Banaji and Greenwald report on a large amount of psychological research showing that IAT scores correlate with prejudicial behaviours. But the bias in behaviour is subtle, so people – “good people” in Banaji and Greenwald’s terms – do not realise it is occurring.

Some experiments involved white students being approached by an interviewer, either a black or a white woman, on a neutral topic. A videocamera covertly recorded each interaction. Nonverbal indicators of the subject’s friendliness or discomfort were judged by independent assessors. A typical finding is that most white US subjects respond more positively to white interviewers.

African American woman taking an interview of a woman
African American woman taking an interview of a woman

Another experiment involved leaving a stamped, addressed and unsealed envelope in an airport phone box. On looking inside at the contents, a photo of the writer is hard to miss. White subjects are more likely to seal and post the envelope if the writer is white rather than black. The differences in response are not all that great, but enough to show a correlation between IAT scores and behaviour.

Dozens of clever studies of this sort show that subtle bias is common and that it affects behaviour, often with drastic effects. Banaji and Greenwald say that today subtle, unconscious bias may be the prime source of unfair discrimination in the US, overshadowing overt prejudice in its effects. Subtle bias is all the more potent because it is unconscious and hence unrecognised.

One of the issues addressed by Banaji and Greenwald is support in the US for measures to make up for historical disadvantage. Although a majority of whites disavow racial prejudice, a majority also thinks the playing field is now level, so extra support for disadvantaged groups is not needed. This can be interpreted as the expression of unconscious prejudice.

Because of the attention to the rights of minorities in recent decades, many US whites now believe they are suffering from adverse discrimination. Because their own prejudice is unconscious, their views about social injustice are opposite to what is shown by the evidence. Banaji and Greenwald provide a detailed appendix about black disadvantage in the US, giving ample evidence that it is real and significant.

Anthony Greenwald
Anthony Greenwald

Why unconscious prejudice exists

You might imagine that good intentions, or personal experience, would be enough to overcome unconscious bias. How could a career woman like Banaji hold an unconscious stereotype of female being associated with family rather than career? Why would a capable older person unconsciously accept negative stereotyping about old people? The answer is in cultural stereotypes that we imbibe from many sources.

In studying history, we read a lot about leaders, especially heads of state. Most of them are men, and a large proportion are white, at least for US people studying US history.

Mount Rushmore
No black or female faces on Mount Rushmore

In US television news, most reporting is about the US, and hardly any is about sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, it is easy for the intuitive mind to become attuned to white faces and not easily differentiate black ones.

In Hollywood productions, there are embedded assumptions about gender, age, social class, crime and a host of other social dimensions. Though not all shows have the same implicit message, the overall effect of watching thousands of hours of Hollywood entertainment is to implant associations and assumptions into many viewers’ minds.

The result is that stereotypes become deeply embedded. Think “surgeon” or “soldier” and the mental image of a white man may be automatic.

The messages of culture, including media, buildings, textbooks, ceremonies and much else, shape the unconscious, intuitive mind. The IAT probes the prejudices of this mind.

What to do

In Blindspot, Banaji and Greenwald devote considerable attention to the challenge of overcoming unconscious prejudice. They assume that “good people” would prefer to be unbiased and, if they knew about their unconscious prejudices, would like to change them.

However, changing the intuitive mind is not easy, especially when culture is continually fostering and reinforcing unconscious stereotypes. Banaji and Greenwald are not optimistic about trying to change intuitive responses. So they pursue a different approach: avoiding or sidestepping unconscious prejudice.

A good example is marking essays without knowing the identities of the students. In this way, unconscious biases about gender, ethnicity, appearance and personality are avoided. The same approach is used by editors of some scholarly journals when soliciting peer reviews: the author’s name and other identifying information are removed from the paper. Though reviewers sometimes can figure out the identity of the writer, the intention is to reduce the influence of conscious or unconscious bias.

peer-review-clipart-1

However, this sort of blinding has limited applicability. In the workplace, a person’s gender and ethnicity cannot easily be disguised.

An initial step is for more people to become aware of their own unconscious biases. It can be disconcerting, even distressing, for a consciously fair-minded person to discover prejudice lurking in their intuitive mind, shaping their behaviour without revealing any trace to consciousness. Accepting that this can occur, though, can unleash creativity and energy in redressing culturally induced blindspots.

Recognising that it is difficult for individuals to overcome their own unconscious biases, there may be better prospects for groups of concerned individuals working together with a shared intent of developing ways of reducing prejudice.

A radical alternative

Prejudice is damaging psychologically, and also when it affects people’s job opportunities, promotions, housing options and other material aspects of life. It seems difficult to deal with hidden prejudice because judgements by others are so central to success in life.

This can be seen as a flaw in the connected systems of meritocracy and inequality. The usual idea of meritocracy is that people rise or fall in their station in life depending on their capacities and achievements: those who do better on tests get better grades and advance further through formal education; those who are more qualified and experienced get better jobs; those who do better work are promoted; those who generate new ideas receive recognition. Inequality in society is justified by belief in the merit principle: those who earn more money or become famous deserve their privileges because of what they’ve done.

The problem is that meritocracy is a myth. People often get ahead because of having wealthy parents, good luck, social advantage such as knowing the right people – and prejudice. Inequality due to birth, luck, connections or prejudice is simply unfair, and not justified by merit.

take-the-same-test

One way to nullify the impact of prejudice (and the role of birth, luck and connections) is to move to a more egalitarian society. At the workplace, instead of having huge pay differentials, most workers could receive the same pay. Or, more generally, everyone in society could be guaranteed the same basic income. With such a system, the impact of prejudice on income would be greatly reduced.

The existence of subtle prejudice can be used to motivate thought experiments. If we imagine that unconscious bias is widespread and virtually impossible to overcome at the psychological level, then the question becomes, how should society be organised so this unconscious bias has minimal consequences? There are some radical possibilities. For example, instead of electing politicians, members of decision-making groups could be chosen randomly.

Banaji and Greenwald say that figuring out how to overcome unconscious bias “may require some thought.” That thought needs to include radical alternatives.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Emma Barkus, Anu Bissoonauth-Bedford, Trent Brown, Rae Campbell, Kathy Flynn, Xiaoping Gao and Alfie Herrero de Haro for useful comments on drafts.

What’s on your mind?

People have the capacity to be able to figure out what others are thinking. But there are lots of traps involved, according to research reported in Nicholas Epley’s book Mindwise.

Personality-icon

For most of my life, I thought I was no good at guessing what other people were feeling. I marvelled at the capacity of friends who, through their powers of intuition, could understand other people.

Then a few years ago I was a subject in a research project on “personality coaching.” After taking a comprehensive psychological test, I met with a coach, had a look at my personality profile and decided what if any aspect of my personality I would like to change. Many other subjects chose to reduce their anxiety or depression, but I scored very low on “neuroticism.” Instead, I chose understanding others’ feelings, something I thought I was poor at. Over ten weeks of coaching, I was encouraged to think about and practise some ways to improve.

I’m not sure whether I actually improved, but I discovered I was better than I had thought at picking up on the emotions of people I knew, for example when talking on the telephone to my PhD students.

Mindwise

Now I’ve read Nicholas Epley’s illuminating book Mindwise (Penguin, 2014) and learned that my original view was probably more accurate, namely I’m not that great at deciphering others’ emotions. However, my view of others’ skills was skewed. Most of them are probably not very good either. Epley reports that those who are poorest at understanding others are the most overconfident in their abilities.

Epley is a professor of behavioural science at the University of Chicago and does research on what he calls “mind-reading.” This is not extra-sensory perception but rather using our senses to understand — in the words of the subtitle of his book — “what others think, believe, feel, and want.”

Mindwise is an engaging treatment of research findings in the area. Epley uses a variety of examples, including from his own life, to illustrate insights. He has packaged this material into a logical framework, progressing through various dimensions of mind-reading. The book is the best sort of popularisation: it conveys key ideas in an understandable, engaging way while being faithful to the original research.

Knowing yourself

Compared to understanding others, it should be far easier to know our own thoughts. But actually it’s not.

strangers-to-ourselves

A book that greatly changed my thinking is Timothy D. Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves. Wilson reported on research showing that there are parts of our minds that we cannot consciously access. He recounts a famous experiment in which young men acted on the basis of an incorrect assessment of their own emotions. Wilson concluded that, in some circumstances, the person sitting next to you knows as much about what you are feeling as you do yourself! It’s hard to believe, but the research is convincing.

Epley, covering some of the same ground, devotes a chapter to “What you can and cannot know about your own mind,” offering numerous fascinating observations about a key shortcoming of the mind. When you feel happy, for example, you usually know, but you seldom know why you’re happy, and systematically make incorrect assumptions about the reasons. Epley says we know what mental products are like as completed products but don’t have a clue about how they were created. Therefore, to make sense of our thoughts and emotions, we manufacture a plausible story and “we’re left with the illusion that we know more about own minds than we actually do.” (p. 30).

When pollsters ring to ask about your voting intentions, they now ask who you would vote for if the election were held today. In doing this, pollsters draw on psychological research. They don’t ask who you would vote for in a few weeks or months, because most people do not know their own minds well enough to accurately predict their future preferences.

Then there is the issue of bias. People assume that others are biased, not themselves, and hold fast to their own illusions. Not understanding one’s own mind in this case leads to mistakes in reading the minds of others.

adam-goodes
Adam Goodes

Take the case of Adam Goodes, Australian rules football star and former Australian of the Year. For the past two years he has been subject to booing by spectators every time he has the ball, something unprecedented in persistence. Many commentators attribute this to Goodes being an Aborigine and, furthermore, outspoken in opposition to racism. Those who boo or otherwise criticise Goodes say they aren’t racist. However, it’s quite possible that they do not understand their own motivations. To justify their beliefs and behaviours, they come up with rationalisations, such as that Goodes has been playing unfairly, a view that conveniently ignores the dozens of other footballers who play the same way. Hardly anyone these days admits being a racist. In this case, others may be able to read the minds of those who defend booing better than they can themselves.

Dehumanising others

One of the most serious flaws in the human mind-reading system is caused by proximity. The part of the brain engaged by the system is the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). People close to us stimulate greater activity in our mPFC: they are seen as having minds. By the same token, those who do not trigger mPFC activity are seen to be mindless and hence less than human. This psychological distancing is the source of mistaken judgements and underlies many crimes and atrocities.

mPFC

People from other cultures are harder to understand and are candidates for dehumanisation. Have you ever gotten to know a terrorist? Those who haven’t are prone to systematically misinterpreting their thinking and motivations. Epley says that terrorists are not psychopaths, but rather have an overwhelming empathy for their own group, connected with a contempt for other groups. “They act out of parochial altruism, a strong commitment to benefit one’s own group or cause without regard for the consequences for oneself” (p. 53).

When dehumanisation can be countered, the benefits can be enormous. Epley recounts the well-known story about a General Motors plant in California that was closed in 1982 due to abysmal productivity and quality control. Then GM entered a partnership with Toyota. The new Japanese management reopened the plant, rehired most of the same workers and started treating them as mindful humans with intrinsic motivations rather than as mindless ones interested only in money. Before long, the plant became a top performer. Despite this well-tested insight about the value of intrinsic motivation, bosses in workplaces around the world continue to treat workers as mindless drones who can only be motivated by fear or financial rewards.

Nummi-plant
Nimmi auto plant in Fresno, California

Because of inadequate understanding of the minds of others, most people are apprehensive of striking up conversations with strangers. Have you ever sat on a bus or train and noticed how people will space themselves out, avoiding sitting next to strangers? In one experiment, commuters were asked whether they would prefer to sit alone or talk to a stranger, and nearly all said sitting alone. Then they were asked to talk with strangers and nearly all found it more enjoyable. This shows that people are mistaken about the likely responsiveness of strangers and about their own emotional responses.

Minds when there are none

The capacity of humans to understand the minds of others can sometimes be deployed when it’s not appropriate, in what is called anthropomorphising, namely seeing things as having human qualities. Have you ever seen someone berating their computer, saying “Why do you keep causing me trouble?” This is anthropomorphising: the computer is attributed will or motivation.

cuckoo

Epley reports that inanimate objects are more likely to be seen as human when they are unpredictable. The computer that sporadically plays up is seen as more wilful than the one that always works – or never does. When something needs to be explained, we are more likely to infer the existence of a mind.

Another reason for attributing minds is appearance, for example a face. The animated feature film Cars is more engaging because the cars have big eyes and mouths, so the fiction that they can think and talk is less jarring. A feature titled Rocks showing expressionless rocks would be less likely to attract audiences.

Cars_2006

Epley writes that the process of anthropomorphising is not mysterious: “Forming a connection requires you to consider another person’s mind, to adopt his or her perspective, to do your best to get into his or her head” (pp. 78-79), and this can occur with non-humans. He notes that musicians often form a personal bond with their instruments, even giving them names. I guess my mind-reading sense is unlikely to be triggered in this way. I’ve been playing the same clarinet for 50 years and never thought of giving it a name.

clarinet
Someone else’s clarinet

It’s all about you

When trying to figure out what others are thinking, one of the biggest challenges is getting over egocentrism, in particular the assumption that others think the way we do. People were asked their views on a range of ethical choices, for example “Is it ethical to call in sick to get a day off?” Then they were asked how they thought others would answer, namely to estimate the percentage of others who would agree with them. On this question, 71% answered that it is ethical, and these subjects estimated 66% of others would answer the same way. So far, so good: 66% is close to 71%, so mind-reading seems to work. However, 29% answered that it is unethical, and these subjects incorrectly estimated 64% of others would answer the same way. On a whole set of questions, people thought the majority of others agreed with their answer, even when they were in minorities as low as 10%. This illustrates that, in the absence of specific knowledge about others, the usual assumption is that they think the same way we do.

self-centered-300x300

Most people overestimate their own contributions to shared tasks, for example housework. They also overestimate their role in negative interactions, taking more than their share of responsibility for starting arguments. An excess of self-centredness leads to paranoia.

Another aspect of self-centredness is that most people think they feel emotions more strongly than others. This is because we feel our own emotions very strongly but have only indirect information about others’ emotions. On this particular aspect of self-centredness I can plead not guilty, because for most of my life I’ve assumed I don’t feel emotions as strongly as others (which, of course, could be true).

Another aspect of a self-centred bias is called the “curse of knowledge”: once you know something, it is very difficult to imagine what it’s like not to know it. The result is that highly knowledgeable people are sometimes poor teachers. Studies show that someone who has just learned how to use a mobile phone can teach a beginner more quickly than can an experienced user. The curse of knowledge is especially relevant to me as a university teacher. I try to counter it by setting up conditions for students to learn from each other. One of the counter-intuitive implications of the curse of knowledge is that I may be better at helping students learn when I haven’t previously taught a subject.

Stereotypes

stereotype_map_by_pokemonarenaart-d6kp9vb

When you don’t know much about a person, it’s convenient to assume they fit a stereotype, about being a woman, an Egyptian, a plumber or a redhead. Epley describes research showing both the strengths and weaknesses of stereotypes. Most stereotypes accurately portray differences between groups. For example, those on the political right are more likely to support bosses against workers than those on the left. The shortcoming of stereotypes is that they give an exaggerated idea of how great the differences between groups are. The differences between right and left on many issues actually are fairly small, maybe 1/10 as great as the stereotypes might suggest.

Stereotypes thus can lead to clashes between groups that don’t really differ very much, because each group operates on the basis of its exaggerated idea of the views of the other group.

This is one reason why deliberative democracy has more potential than you might imagine. Put together a randomly selected group of 12 citizens (a so-called citizens jury), give them information about some subject, say genetic engineering or climate change, and have them try to reach consensus on a policy. It sounds like it wouldn’t work, but hundreds of actual citizens juries show that it usually does. When people are brought together, get to know each other and exchange ideas, stereotypes give way to more realistic perceptions, and usually there is more commonality than initially imagined.

Actions

Most people are susceptible to “correspondence bias.” When someone acts violently, we may assume they are angry or aggressive. Many people in the US assume that the 9/11 terrorists hated America and wanted to destroy the American way of life, despite explicit al Qaeda statements about their real motivations.

why-do-people-hate-america

Correspondence bias can reflect an assumption that other people’s actions are internally motivated rather than conditioned by the environment. If your friend Lauren walks by without saying hello, you may assume she is unhappy with you when actually she was just preoccupied and didn’t see you. Epley notes that people in collectivist cultures, such as in Japan, are more attuned to the existence of environmental influences and are less likely to be subject to correspondence bias.

Correspondence bias can have serious consequences. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans in 2005, officials assumed that those who had not been evacuated didn’t want to leave. The officials didn’t take into account the factors that constrained the desires of residents. Epley says “They didn’t need convincing, they needed a bus” (p. 151).

How to read minds

When someone looks to the side while talking to you, does this mean they’re lying? When they fold their arms and keep their distance, does this mean they’re resisting your views? A lot has been written about body language and how to interpret it. Despite reading several books on the topic, I have always thought I was poor at interpreting body language. According to Epley, I’m not unusual: it’s very difficult to learn a lot from it. If you’re going to try, it’s better to listen to someone’s voice rather than watch them.

Then there is perspective-taking: imagining yourself in someone else’s shoes and thereby gaining insight into what they think and how they feel. I always thought this was valuable, but Epley cites many studies showing it is subject to serious shortcomings. We can imagine ourselves in someone else’s circumstances, but often this isn’t accurate at all.

There’s one method for figuring out what other people are thinking that is usually pretty helpful: ask them, and carefully listen to what they say. It seems obvious but, as Epley notes, in many cases people are overconfident in thinking they already know the answer, so they don’t bother to ask. A boss assumes a worker needs higher pay to work harder, or arrives late due to being slack, and doesn’t ask for the worker’s explanation.

The key to getting an honest answer is to reduce the threat of repercussions. Epley tells how he used this approach with his son. Performance appraisals at work are useless when employees fear reprisals for being honest.

Nicholas-Epley
Nicholas Epley

Mindwise is filled with insights. If figuring out what others are thinking is important to you, it could be one of the most useful books you’ll ever read. An important message is that most people are overconfident about their mind-reading abilities. As Epley concludes, “Sometimes a sense of humility is the best our wise minds can offer, recognizing that there’s more to the mind of another person than we may ever imagine” (p. 184).

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Don Eldridge for useful comments.

We’re being analysed

A new era of data analysis is dawning, and it’s because people are sharing so much information about themselves.

okcupid-logo

Christian Rudder is one of the founders of the popular online dating site OkCupid. People under 50 can go to the site, enter information about themselves and then make contact with prospective dates and mates according to suggestions made by the site’s algorithms. Rudder realised he was sitting on a mine of data that can reveal new insights about the human condition. He’s written a book about it, titled Dataclysm (London: Fourth Estate, 2014).

At OkCupid, users make judgements about various things, including the looks of other people. Examining only the judgements of self-declared heterosexuals, Rudder plots the age of the member of the opposite sex who is rated most attractive. For women up to the age of 30, the most attractive man is slightly older; thereafter, the most attractive man is slightly younger than they are. Rudder shows this on this graph.

women-prefer-men-by-age

Then he does the same thing with men, and comes up with a very different sort of graph.

 men-prefer-women-by-age

The men, overwhelmingly, see 20 to 23-year old women as most attractive. Not too surprising, perhaps, but here is the bonus. This sort of data enables research that overcomes many of the shortcomings of conventional psychological research, for which the experimental subjects are mostly university undergraduates in artificial conditions. On OkCupid, a broader cross-section of the population is included, and the conditions are real-life.

There are methodological obstacles to be sure. One of them is that people lie, for example about their own attributes. But there’s something more in the data that people are unlikely to lie about: their behaviour. Subscribers at OkCupid, after obtaining the address of a possible match, can choose to contact the person, or not, and the recipient of a message can choose to respond, or not. Given the information collected by OkCupid, it is possible to look for correlations between this behaviour and any number of attributes, for example age, looks, ethnicity and sexuality.

There is yet another source of information: the words people use to describe themselves. Rudder provides some useful tables of words characteristically used by particular groups on OkCupid, for example white men. He tabulates the words used by white men that most distinguish them from black men, Latinos and Asian men: these include “my blue eyes,” “blonde hair” and “ween.” In contrast, words most distinctively used by black men include “dreads,” “jill scott” and “haitian.” And so on with many more words for each group, and for various other groups, such as Asian women. Then there are the antithetical words, namely the words a group is least likely to use compared to other groups. For Latinos, these include “southern accent,” “from the midwest” and “ann arbor.”

Rudder uses data from OkCupid because he knows it best, but he also draws on data from Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites that have far larger user numbers. He provides fascinating insights by looking at people’s locations, political views, sexuality and much else. Who would have thought, for example, that data can be used to show that two people meeting through an online dating site, with no prior information about appearance, would be equally satisfied with the date independently of the difference between their attractiveness ratings. As Rudder notes, “people appear to be heavily preselecting online for something [attractiveness] that, once they sit down in person, doesn’t seem important to them” (p. 90).

Christian-Rudder-credit-Vic
Christian Rudder

Rudder confirms the widely noted bias in favour of good looking women. He goes beyond this to comment on a perverse result:

Think about how the Shiftgig data changes our understanding of women’s perceived workplace performance. They are evidently being sought out (and exponentially so) for a trait [beauty] that has nothing to do with their ability to do a job well. Meanwhile, men have no such selection imposed. It is therefore simple probability that women’s failure rate, as a whole, will be higher. And, crucially, the criteria are to blame, not the people. Imagine if men, no matter the job, were hired for their physical strength. You would, by design, end up with strong men facing challenges that strength has nothing to do with. In the same way, to hire women based on their looks is to (statistically) guarantee poor performance. It’s either that or you limit their opportunities. Thus Ms. Wolf [Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth]: “The beauty myth is always actually prescribing behavior and not appearance.” She was speaking primarily in a sexual context, but here, we see how it plays out, with mathematical equivalence, in the workplace. (p. 121)

One of Rudder’s key topics is racism. One way to detect racist views using Internet data is by looking at the terms people put into search engines. Using Google data (in particular, the Google Trends tool), Rudder plots the number of searches for the word “nigger” against the months before and after Barack Obama’s election victory in November 2008. Several spikes in the graph connect to significant events in the campaign. As Rudder puts it, the graph enables you to “watch the country come to grips with the prospect of a black president” (p. 129). Rudder also uses online data to show that racism in the US is pervasive; biases are widespread rather than restricted to a few open racists. On the other hand, racial biases shown by US data are nearly absent in comparable data about people in Britain and Japan.

Then there is online mobbing, when people gang up against a target. Rudder uses the example of Justine Sacco, who tweeted a poor attempt at humour. She was condemned by thousands for racism, received death threats and lost her job. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was followed by tens of millions of people. Rudder tells about his own effort to inject some sense into the conversation about Sacco, only to be countered by a damaging claim about Sacco — a claim that turned out to be false.

HasJustineLandedYet

Rudder reviews what researchers say about rumours, gossip and human sacrifice, as social phenomena in history and in the Internet age.

So much of what makes the Internet useful for communication — asynchrony, anonymity, escapism, a lack of central authority — also makes it frightening. People can act however they want (and say whatever they want) without consequences, a phenomenon first studied by John Suler, a professor of psychology at Rider University. His name for it is the “online disinhibition effect.” The webcomic Penny Arcade puts it a little better:
Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory
normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad (p. 145)

Reading Dataclysm

Rudder comments that it is strange to be writing a book, in old fashioned hard copy, in the digital age. But what a book it is! It is stylishly laid out, with an elegant font and beautifully crafted diagrams. It is not quite a coffee table book — there are no colour photos — but for an intellectual work it is exceptionally attractive.

Rudder’s writing style is equally striking, with a mixture of colloquial language, wide-ranging cultural references, scholarly citations and astute observations. Referring to the Twitterstorm against Justine Sacco, Rudder muses:

… this, to me, is why the data generated from outrage could ultimately be so important. It embodies (and therefore lets us study) the contradictions inherent in us all. It shows we fight hardest against those who can least fight back. And, above all, it runs to ground our age-old desire to raise ourselves up by putting other people down. Scientists have established that the drive is as old as time, but this doesn’t mean they understand it yet. As Gandhi put it, “It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow beings.”

I invite you to imagine when it will be a mystery no more. That will be the real transformation — to know not just that people are cruel, and in what amounts, and when, but why. Why we search for “nigger jokes” when a black man wins; why inspiration is hollow-eyed, stripped, and above all, #thin; why people scream at each other about the true age of the earth. And why we seem to define ourselves as much by what we hate as by what we love. (pp. 148–149)

Implications

Rudder suggests that a new approach to studying human behaviour is emerging. Rather than relying on studies of undergraduate students in experimental (artificial) conditions, data will become available for examining human behaviour in “natural” conditions, namely when people think no one is looking at them. This is the idea underlying the subtitle of Dataclysm: Who We Are* — with the footnote *When We Think No One’s Looking.

social-analytics

Rudder is quite aware that online data are incomplete. Those who use OkCupid are not a perfect cross-section of the population between 18 and 50. Even Facebook, with its billions of users, does not incorporate everyone. But there is a qualitative as well as a quantitative jump in what it is possible to analyse: the behaviour of millions of people in natural conditions. This requires access to the data and knowledge of quantitative methodologies.

Rudder comments on the disappearance of privacy, and the fact that most people seem not to care too much: they willingly share all sorts of intimate data, for example on Facebook. It is now possible for marketers to predict fairly accurately, on the basis of automated analysis of data and words, whether you are gay, straight, unemployed or pregnant, among other information relevant for marketing. Analysts are working on how to assess a person’s intelligence from their online presence. Few people realise the potential implications for their careers of their casual interactions on social media.

Conclusion

Masses of data about individuals now available can be mined for insights about human behaviour, and many of these insights are fascinating, sometimes confirming conventional ideas and sometimes challenging them. Readers of Dataclysm can obtain a good sense of a future, part of which is already here, in which data obtained about seemingly innocent activities — such as your Facebook likes, the words you use on Twitter or the terms you enter into search engines — can be used to draw inferences about your prejudices, activities and capabilities. Perhaps, like Rudder, you may decide to become a bit more cautious about your online activities.

Social-Analyst

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Dealing with shaming

twitter-storm-alison-12001

Imagine that you posted a tweet or Facebook comment and suddenly became the target of an online attack, denounced by thousands of furious commenters. What you had intended as a joke was off-colour or poorly expressed, maybe, but it was nothing all that significant, yet your reputation was savaged.

This is what happened to Justine Sacco, who made an ill-advised tweet just before leaving on a long flight. On arrival, she found out she was the target of a massive campaign of abuse. She lost her  job. It took her months to recover her bearings.

Justine-Sacco
Justine Sacco

            Sacco’s story is one of several examined in Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson, a journalist, is the author of a series of highly entertaining books about weird topics. In his book Them he reported on his encounters with individuals holding extreme right-wing views. In The Men Who Stare at Goats – also made into a film – he told about US military experiments with psychic powers.

Ronson decided to investigate a recent phenomenon: public shaming via social media. Public shaming is hardly new. The Puritans famously put criminals in the stocks for public ridicule. What has changed is the ease by which someone’s casual comment can be broadcast to the world and lead to an orgy of abuse.

Ronson’s approach is to pick some juicy case studies and make contact with the key figures, interviewing them and using their stories to make wider points, or just to provide a vivid way of highlighting concerns. He begins with the story of Jonah Lehrer, a highly praised science writer whose books sold millions of copies. Lehrer was caught out having been sloppy in sourcing his claims and then lying about it. He consented to appear on a broadcast where he made a public apology with a twitter feed as a backdrop. His apology was unsuccessful: it triggered even more abuse.

Jonah-Lehrer-300x227
Jonah Lehrer

            In Lehrer’s case, there might be some sense of karma, in that a high-flyer, living in an expensive house and enjoying fame, was undone by his transgressions, and those who brought him down were lesser mortals simply using tweets. But other cases, such as Justine Sacco’s, show that something more ominous is occurring. Sacco was not a public figure and she didn’t do anything all that terrible: she made one tweet, a social comment in the form of a poorly expressed joke, and paid an exorbitant penalty. Ronson points out that we now live in a society in which deviations from some arbitrary orthodoxy of proper behaviour may be punished, in a seemingly arbitrary way, by a storm of online abuse. Meanwhile, there are plenty of big-time criminals of the white collar variety who escape public censure.

Ronson’s journey led him to Max Mosley, son of the leader of Britain’s Nazi Party during the 1930s, who made a life for himself in the motorcar racing scene. Mosley was outed in the mass media for engaging in S&M orgies, alleged to be Nazi-themed. Having the juicy details of these orgies recounted to the public would be, for most individuals, excruciatingly humiliating, but Mosley was unbowed, fighting the media in court – despite this leading to further publicity – and winning. Mosley was seemingly unperturbed by the exposures. He had been publicly shamed, but did not feel shame himself.

Ronson wanted to know whether Mosley’s emotional resilience could be replicated, so he joined a class run by Brad Blanton, who specialises in helping people overcome shame. Blanton’s technique is to invite course participants to reveal their deepest secrets to each other and discover that the feared consequences do not occur. Ronson observed a seeming competition by those present to reveal the most horrifying information about themselves – for example, having sex with cats – and was castigated when he himself could tell only of a few pallid transgressions of good taste. This deshaming technique seemed to be a dead end.

brad-blanton-radical-honesty
Brad Blanton

            Ronson’s journey then took him in another direction: what to do for a person whose Google profile is overwhelmed by abusive comment. After public shaming episodes, Google searches for the person’s name bring up one derogatory comment after another. In Europe, there is now a right to be forgotten: requests can be made to Google to remove links. However, this works imperfectly for a number of reasons, including that there are some people publicising those who have sought Google-search invisibility and because searches outside Europe will still give the undesired results.

Ronson discovered a firm of reputation managers who, for a hefty fee, manipulate Google rankings. Ronson wanted to watch this in action, so he asked the firm if they would waive the fee if he could follow the operation and write about it — thereby providing publicity. Ronson found the ideal candidate for this treatment in Lindsay Stone, a disability worker who liked iconoclastic stunts, and who made the mistake of posting a photo of her shooting the bird (raising her middle finger) in front of a military cemetery. She was savaged on the web, and every search for “Lindsay Stone” led to abusive comments about her. She lost her job and became depressed, all for a silly prank. Others named Lindsay Stone were affected too: their Google profiles were obscured by the vitriol directed at the transgressing Lindsay Stone.

The reputation-management firm interviewed Stone, found out about positive or neutral aspects of her life, and gradually put up positive mentions about her (and other Lindsay Stones too). In a matter of months, the abusive comments were pushed to page 2 on Google, where few searchers bother to examine the links. However, to maintain this state of affairs, continuing efforts were required. This service doesn’t come cheap. Stone was exempted from the fee, but for others it might cost $100,000. Manipulating Google rankings is not easy for ordinary people who incur the wrath of an online mob.

I-ate-the-housesitters-false-teeth

            Ronson, in studying public shaming, is on to an important topic. Shame is a crucially important emotion, and can be used for positive or negative purposes. On the positive side, shaming can be used as a method of rehabilitation: when people break laws and hurt others, the usual criminal sanctions are trials, fines and imprisonment. An alternative is meeting face-to-face with victims, making an apology and doing work in restitution. This approach can be a powerful and humane way of reintegrating transgressors into the community.

Crime, shame and reintegration

            On the other hand, shame can be debilitating. In schools and workplaces, students and workers are constantly compared with each other and encouraged to feel ashamed when they do not measure up to expectations. Eventually, individuals start shaming themselves. For example, when they see a co-worker who is more productive, better looking or more vivacious, they feel bad about themselves. This is especially common in toxic work environments where bullying is rife. One part of surviving in such environments is to not accept the judgements of others and not to shame oneself, as addressed by Judith Wyatt and Chauncey Hare in their book Work Abuse.

This was the challenge Ronson pondered when interviewing Max Mosley, who did not feel ashamed by the publicity about his sex orgies. Journalists and others tried to shame Mosley, but he was having none of it: he did not feel it personally.

Max Mosley
Max Mosley

The crucial step in challenging damaging shaming rituals is to refuse to accept the judgement of others. With emotional distance and independence, it is possible then to think in a clear way about responses. If shaming only affected emotions, this would be a complete response, but shaming rituals affect friends, many of whom drop away, and employers, who may fire or refuse to hire the target of abuse.

Shaming is not inherently bad. What is wrong is when it is disproportionate to what a person has done and serves no positive purpose. If someone is guilty of a violent assault or of stealing millions of dollars of investor funds, then shame can be a valuable tool for reintegration into society, with a changed consciousness that reduces the risk of repeat offences. But when the transgression is minor, such as making a racist or sexist remark, it hardly seems fair that a person’s reputation is trashed and career ended. This is not to excuse racist and sexist remarks, but there are so many of them that a harsh penalty for an unlucky target is unfair. If thousands of people jaywalk every day, it is not fair to single out one particular jaywalker for a massive fine or a stint in jail.

Ronson says that public shamings have a mob aspect, and he regrets having participated in many such shamings before he embarked on his investigation. To me, these collective manifestations of abuse suggest a role for the psychological process called projection, in which individuals disown a negative part of their own personality and attribute it to others, sometimes attacking them. A classic example is homophobia, in which men refuse to accept their own homosexual urges, seeing them as terrible, and instead see them in others, and attack those others.

In public shamings, participants are able to feel better about themselves in two ways. First, they feel good because their own transgressive impulses, for example to think inappropriate things, are disowned and attributed to a single target, who can be safely condemned and abused through electronic means. Secondly, they obtain the warm feeling of being part of a crowd with a common purpose. This is togetherness in righteousness. Ronson points out that public shamings are serving to narrow the bounds of permissible behaviour. Everyone must conform, otherwise they risk assault by the crowd.

Jon-Ronson
Jon Ronson

            The cases chosen by Ronson highlight the arbitrariness of public rituals of spontaneous condemnation, with most of the targets he has selected being just unfortunate. There is another type of public shaming, when it is instigated as a tool in a type of power struggle. Tom Flanagan, a Canadian political scientist and public commentator, was targeted by his opponents, who covertly recorded one of his talks and posted a misleadingly labelled excerpt from it, with the express intent of damaging Flanagan’s credibility and career. Flanagan’s methods of responding, described in his book Persona Non Grata, are a model for others. Some dissident scientists are subject to degradation rituals intended to cast them out of the scientific community – and there are ways for them to resist.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is the most entertaining book on shame available, and might serve as a warning to be careful about what you put online. A more important message is to avoid joining in episodes of public shaming.

so-youve-been-publicly-shamed-9780330492287

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Politics and morals

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Jonathan Haidt has analysed the moral foundations of people’s political orientations. To fully explain people’s political allegiances, attention also needs to be given to the ‘tactics of assignment’. Proponents of deliberative democracy can learn from studying moral foundations.

Introduction

Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist who has investigated the foundations of people’s morality. In his engaging and pathbreaking book The Righteous Mind, he draws on a wide range of evidence to argue that morality has six main foundations: care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity. Previously I commented on how this framework applies to whistleblowing.

Righteous_Mind

            The ‘care’ foundation means caring for others, an extension of the instinct to care for children, necessary in human evolution for the survival of groups. Care in a contemporary political context means concern for those who need assistance, such as people who are poor, disabled or abused. This care foundation inspires support for government welfare services such as unemployment payments.

Haidt applies his framework to US citizens, with a surprising conclusion. He finds that libertarians rely especially on single foundation, liberty, which means opposition to domination. Libertarians oppose government controls, and taken to extremes this leads to surprising conclusions: they may oppose drug laws, environmental regulations and even taxation. A principled libertarian trusts in individuals and markets to solve social problems.

Liberals in the US – which might be called progressives or leftists elsewhere – draw heavily on three moral foundations: care, fairness and liberty, with care as their foremost value.

Finally there are US conservatives. The more a person follows a conservative line, in Haidt’s assessment, the more likely they are to rely on all six moral foundations in roughly equal measure. Conservatives are influenced by authority, loyalty and sanctity more than are libertarians and liberals.

One measure of where you stand on the liberal-conservative continuum is openness to new experiences. If you are stimulated by new foods, new ideas and people from different cultures, you are likely to be at the liberal end of the spectrum. Haidt notes that within universities, liberals greatly outnumber conservatives.

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One important consequence of differences in moral foundations is that people do not fully understand what drives others. Unless you realise that libertarians prioritise liberty in their assessments of right and wrong, it can be hard to figure out how they come to their judgements.

Haidt has a message for liberals: conservatives have an advantage in political engagements. Conservatives, drawing more equally on all six moral foundations, can understand where others are coming from. However, liberals, emphasising just three foundations, cannot as easily understand the passions of conservatives, because for liberals the roles of authority, loyalty and sanctity are less salient.

A conservative, for example, may react viscerally to the act of defacing the American flag. This is a violation of a sense of sacredness that underpins emotional responses and consequently shapes viewpoints. A liberal might think, ‘it’s just a piece of cloth, so what’s the big deal?’ The liberal simply does not rate stamping on a flag (a violation of sanctity) as anywhere comparable to stamping on a person’s body (a violation of care).

usa-flag

Haidt says there is something to learn from conservatives, for example the value of traditions. More generally, he argues that politics needs to be based on mutual understanding. In particular, liberals need to better understand what drives conservatives so that each of them can move beyond pointless arguments that are based on deeply felt, but sometimes unrecognised, emotional responses.

The rider and the elephant

Haidt, like other psychologists, finds it useful to think of the mind as composed of two components. One is intuitive, fast and judgemental. Haidt calls this component the elephant. The other component, which is reflective, slow and strategic, Haidt calls it the rider.

Elephant and Rider

            The intuitive side of the mind is very useful for day-to-day life, making quick evaluations that enable survival. If you see an object rapidly coming towards your head, it is better to duck immediately rather than first try to calculate its trajectory. The rational part of the mind carefully considers evidence and options and is more suited for evaluation and long-term planning.

Haidt uses the labels elephant and rider because, according to the evidence, much thinking operates by the elephant making a quick judgement and the rider working out a way to justify it. There are some ingenious psychological experiments showing how the power of rationality is used to justify gut reactions, sometimes involving elaborate intellectual contortions. Those whose rational powers are more developed may actually be better at developing rationalisations for pre-made judgements. The rider usually follows the elephant’s preferences.

Applied to politics, this means that a lot of political argument is just a sideshow, because evidence and arguments are mainly used to justify positions based on intuitive judgements, themselves related to the six foundations of morality. The metaphor of the elephant and rider helps to explain why so few people change their minds when exposed to new evidence. More commonly, they ignore or dismiss the evidence, or find ways to undermine it. This is a feature of the phenomenon called confirmation bias, in which people look for evidence to support their current views and ignore, dismiss or criticise contrary evidence.

Willful-blindness

Assigning moralities

A question Haidt does not systematically address, though he is aware of it, is why moralities are assigned in particular ways and not others. For example, in relation to sanctity, why should someone care more about desecration of the US flag than, for example, the California flag or the UN flag? In terms of the fairness foundation, why should someone get more upset about welfare cheats than about inherited wealth?

There are big differences between the US and Europe in how some moralities are assigned. For example, in the US, people who have never been employed may not qualify for unemployment payments. In many European countries, universal unemployment insurance is taken for granted, and is far more generous. Does this mean that in the US, the fairness foundation is more important than the care foundation? Probably not: a better explanation is that US citizens have been conditioned to think about welfare in a different way than Europeans.

This is apparent in the US debate about ‘socialised medicine,’ which means universal health insurance. Many in the US see this as a dangerous idea, presumably appealing to the foundation of liberty, namely resistance to government domination. In Europe, universal health insurance is seen as normal, and appeals to the foundations of care and fairness.

Socialized_Medicine

            Another example is transport. It is well known that US transit systems — trains and buses primarily — are limited in service, low in quality and expensive compared to many European systems. In the US, the car reigns supreme, a symbol of independence and freedom, appealing to the liberty foundation. But what about roads? The US interstate highway system, built in the 1950s onwards, was the largest public works program in the world. Yet no one in the US talks about ‘socialised roads’ or even castigates trains and buses as ‘socialised transport’. Admittedly, some libertarians would like to privatise the road system, but they are a tiny minority.

US-roads

            To explain the peculiarities of how moralities are assigned in different ways, Haidt refers to moral entrepreneurs, public relations people and political operatives. A moral entrepreneur is someone who tries to stir up passions about a topic. Anti-abortionists, animal liberationists and sellers of deodorants all are trying to persuade others to think and act a certain way, and doing it by linking their special concerns to moral foundations. Anti-abortionists and animal liberationists each appeal to the care foundation, but with very different objects of concern, while deodorant advertisers appeal to the sanctity foundation, trying to induce people to buy deodorants to prevent or disguise allegedly disgusting body odour.

Loyalty to what?

Moral entrepreneurs are active in all things political. Patriotism is a prime example, linked to the loyalty foundation. Early humans lived in small groups, comprising dozens to a few hundred individuals. Maintaining loyalty to this group often made the difference between life and death for group members, so in evolutionary terms it makes sense that human minds are primed for loyalty. As Haidt expresses it, loyalty is an aspect of the first draft of the mind.

But loyalty to what? Why should a mental preference for loyalty to small human groups be assigned to a country, sometimes with millions of people, in what we call patriotism or national pride? Why not loyalty to one’s nearest one hundred neighbours? Or why not loyalty to the entire human species? Or maybe loyalty to life more generally, in a type of pantheism?

The answer is that identification with one’s own country is cultivated in all sorts of ways, many of them so obvious as to be unnoticed. In school, children are taught about their country’s history, often in biased ways. Students in Australia learn much more about Australia — usually good things, sometimes bad things — than about Brazil or Ethiopia. Then there is the media, reporting national news as a priority. In sports coverage, it might be reported, ‘Australia took a lead over India’. Yes, it’s cricket, and nothing really significant perhaps, but it reinforces thinking about the world in terms of countries.

cricket-India-Australia

Democracy

Winston Churchill’s comment that ‘democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried’ is often quoted. The system of government commonly called ‘democracy’ has taken on a type of god-like status. Indeed, it appeals to the sanctity foundation in many people who follow politics.

The media provide a steady diet of news about government policies, government crises, politicians and elections. It might be said that politics is one of the world’s leading spectator sports. Nearly everyone has an opinion.

Politics is indeed a spectator sport in an important sense: most people are spectators, not participants. Aside from occasionally voting and talking to others about politics, most people have no greater involvement. In terms of participation, electoral politics is quite low. Just as it is misleading to refer to a ‘sporting nation’ when many unfit citizens interact with sports only as spectators, it is also misleading to refer to ‘democracy’ when most citizens are passive spectators of rule by politicians, not to mention unelected lobby groups who serve the interests of the wealthiest 1%.

For these reasons, my co-author Lyn Carson and I prefer the expression ‘representative government’ over ‘democracy’. Historically, there have been quite a number of political systems with much greater direct participation in decision making, for example in ancient Athens.

For those who support greater participation, for example through referenda, town meetings, consultative forums, community representatives on planning bodies, and randomly selected policy-advising bodies, the challenge is how to move from representative government to participatory democracy. In Haidt’s terms, current attachments of fairness, authority, loyalty and sanctity are to the system of voting and elections — representative government — and not to more participatory processes.

This is not an easy task, to say the least. Representative government is taught to school children, is taken for granted in media coverage, is touted as the solution to autocracy, and is regularly legitimated through voting and elections, in which voters give their implicit consent to the system of rule.

Consequences-of-consent

The occupy movement challenged the system by pointing out the complicity of governments and corporations in serving the wealthy at the expense of the majority – the 99%. Representative government in many countries has become a tool of powerful groups and serves their interests regardless of which party is in power. The occupy movement had a presence on the streets of many cities around the world, but in the US was subject to police harassment. Challenging the system in a direct, open way can be a risky business.

Attaching to participatory politics

Many people have developed strong beliefs in the superiority of representative government and the impossibility of participatory democracy. Their moralities have become assigned to one particular moral matrix, namely a configuration of moral assessments. Voting is seen to be fair, and so is the election of rulers, even though having money and connections is crucially important to electoral success. Few people think it is unfair that most people have no hope of being elected to office.

On the other hand, some moral assignments are more compatible with participatory processes. For example, in countries where juries for trials are selected randomly, this is seen as fair — as a way of selecting an unbiased cross-section of the population to hear evidence from two sides and to make a considered judgement. That trial juries are seen as fair shows that the fairness foundation might be assigned in a different way in politics. Randomly selected groups of citizens might be brought together, provided with information about a controversial issue – such as town planning or nanotechnology – hear from experts and partisans, discuss the issue among themselves and reach a consensus. Such groups are called policy juries or citizens panels. Hundreds of such panels, in several different countries, have been formed and have deliberated on a wide range of issues. The challenge is to get more people to think of these sorts of processes as the epitome of fairness, rather than voting.

Deliberative-democracy-handbook

Participatory democracy can come in various forms, for example referendums and popular assemblies, which complicates the challenge of encouraging people to think of them as viable alternatives to representative government. Another important factor is deliberation, which means careful consideration of arguments, often in discussions with others, as in juries. Only some participatory processes are deliberative: referendums often are not, being determined more by campaigning, advertising and slogans, whereas citizens panels are.

Advocates of participatory and deliberative alternatives can learn from Haidt’s research on moral foundations. Rather than trying to convince people through information and logical argument that participation and deliberation are good things, it is likely to be more effective to come up with ways to get people to sense in their guts that these alternatives are valuable and worth supporting.

Probably the best advertisement for participation is the experience of participation itself. Many of the people chosen randomly to serve on citizens panels find it incredibly engrossing and satisfying: they feel they are doing something worthwhile and become committed to the process. The same applies to experiences in workers’ councils, neighbourhood meetings and social action groups. The occupy movement, for example, provided on-the-ground training in participatory politics.

The implication is that ‘doing democracy’ – namely participating in groups or processes that involve direct decision-making – is a powerful way to promote participatory alternatives to representative government. The challenge is to make these experiences as satisfying as possible, thereby building commitment to the process, without getting too fixated on changing things immediately. This is the familiar dilemma of task functions and maintenance functions within groups. Achieving the group’s goal is important, but so is maintaining good relationships within the group, as the basis for commitment and long-term survival.

Taking a lead from Haidt, promoting participatory alternatives needs to pay more attention to what affects people’s moralities — their senses of care, fairness, liberty, authority, loyalty and sanctity — and figure out how to reassign moral foundations to participative and deliberative processes. There is nothing automatic or inherent in patriotism or a belief in the superiority of representative government. Alternatives are possible; the question is how best to promote them.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Lyn Carson for valuable comments on a draft.

Understanding protest

James Jasper’s book Protest provides a valuable introduction to a type of activity around us all the time.

Baghdad-protest
Rally in Baghdad, 2008

I recently read James M. Jasper’s book Protest: A Cultural Introduction to Social Movements. It is written to be used as a textbook, but in an engaging style. I found it a useful refresher covering issues I’ve studied for many years.

Reading about any topic can make you more likely to notice relevant examples, and so it was for me in reading about protest. On the day I finished reading Protest I received an email from Antoon De Baets of the Network of Concerned Historians: PEN International Writers in Prison Committee reported on the 30-month prison sentence received by a Paraguayan writer, Nelson Aguilera. His crime: alleged plagiarism! According to the PEN Committee, experts say no plagiarism was involved, so obviously there must be some other factor involved – a connection between the complainant and the prosecutor. Recipients of the appeal were invited to write to the president of Paraguay. It is a type of protest, along the lines of the efforts of Amnesty International.

Nelson-Aguilera
Nelson Aguilera

            Then there was an appeal from my union, the National Tertiary Education Union, to send letters to politicians to stop passage of legislation to deregulate fees at Australian universities. It is a typical pressure technique.

I also had just finished providing assessments concerning the Navco database of nonviolent challenges to governments. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan carried out a path-breaking study comparing nonviolent and violent challenges to repressive regimes (as well as secession and anti-occupation struggles). They compiled a database of 323 struggles between 1900 and 2006. In their 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works, they showed that anti-regime struggles were far more likely to be successful if they relied primarily on nonviolent methods such as rallies, strikes and boycotts. Furthermore, this conclusion held up regardless of how repressive the regime was: nonviolent action is just as effective against the most ruthless governments.

Erica is now updating and augmenting the database. She sent me and various others a list of over 100 additional nonviolent anti-regime struggles, some in the years since 2006 and some from earlier years that were not included in the original database. There were cases from Algeria and Armenia through to Western Sahara and Yemen.

MST-protest
Landless Workers’ Movement, Brazil, 2005

I had to try to judge whether each struggle was maximalist (seeking to change the government), constituted a campaign, was nonviolent (rather than violent), was successful or unsuccessful, and warranted being in the database. This was a challenging exercise, because quite a few of the cases did not fit neatly into the target categories and because online information was less than ideal. The exercise certainly made me aware of the remarkable capacity of citizens to organise for major political change, using an eye-opening variety of techniques with amazing courage against brutal governments. And in many of the cases, these brutal governments lost the struggle.

Jasper’s book

Jasper-protest
Protest
covers a standard set of topics: defining social movements, the role of meanings in their operation and presence, the wider social context, recruitment, maintaining operations and momentum, making decisions, interactions with other players, and winning/losing. Jasper’s cultural approach has a couple distinctive features. He emphasises the roles of meanings for participants, such as how they see themselves; these meanings draw on beliefs and images in the surrounding culture. Associated with this, he emphasises the role of emotions in social movement dynamics, an area in which he is a pioneering researcher.

JamesMJasper
James M Jasper

            Jasper also brings to his treatment his special interest in dilemmas: choices that movement activists need to make that involve difficult trade-offs. An example is the organisation dilemma:

Protesters face many choices about how much to formalize their operations through rules, fundraising, paid staff, and offices. Formalities like these help sustain activities over time, but they can also change those activities. The goal of sustaining and protecting the organization appears alongside its original mission, and more time is devoted to raising funds and expanding staffs. In some cases, the survival of the organization becomes the primary goal. Members may then grow cynical about staff salaries, the paid trips leaders take on official business, large and lavish offices. Laws governing the operation of officially incorporated organizations – especially their tax-exempt status – constrain their tactical choices. Organizations are like other strategic means: they always have the potential to become ends in themselves … (p. 82)

One thing that comes across strongly in the book is that activism isn’t all that easy. Movements don’t start or continue by accident: lots of committed people work to bring an issue to public attention, pressure governments or directly implement solutions.

Of special interest are social movement organisations (SMOs). Some well-known examples are Greenpeace and Amnesty International, and there are thousands of others. SMOs are not the same as social movements, which typically incorporate multiple SMOs, independent activists and supporters, and occasional participants. Movements are also more than people and organisations. They involve knowledge, beliefs, assumptions, symbols and many other intangibles.

Occasionally I read a letter to the editor saying, “Where are the protests about X?” where X might be street violence, discrimination or aggression in a foreign country. The letter writers are often decrying what they see as double standards: if environmentalists are protesting about whaling, why aren’t they protesting about land degradation? I assume few of these letter-writers have ever tried to organise a rally. If they had, they would realise how much effort it requires – especially the effort to convince people to attend – and even then a rally does not automatically translate into media coverage.

People who have been involved in social movements often have a deep understanding of how they operate and what they are up against. So what is there for them to learn from Jasper’s book? The advantage of a straightforward, well-written text is putting personal experiences in context. After all, there are hundreds of different social movements, with quite a few commonalities but also a number of differences.

Personally, I found it useful to go through Protest as a refresher about the basics, and an update concerning theoretical developments that might offer insight into movements.

Nonviolent action

On only one point would I differ significantly in emphasis. Jasper distinguishes between two categories of protest methods, calling them “nice” and “naughty.” Nice protest methods operate within the system and accepted by authorities, for example lobbying, voting and petitions. Naughty methods include wildcat strikes, massive rallies and assaulting police: they transgress norms about normal or proper political behaviour, and are seen as threatening.

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What this distinction misses is the expanding body of research on nonviolent action, which refers to non-standard methods of social action that do not involve physical violence against opponents. (Nonviolent protesters often suffer violence from police and others.) Methods of nonviolent action include rallies, strikes, boycotts, fasts, sit-ins and setting up alternative political institutions, among others. The dynamics of nonviolent action have been studied in some depth, and diverge in significant ways from the dynamics of violence. For example, police violence against peaceful protesters is likely to generate public outrage, whereas police violence against violent protests is not – even if the police violence is much greater. The choice is not just between naughty and nice but also between violence and nonviolent action.

Conclusion

In the late 1970s, I was active in the Australian anti-uranium movement, and after a number of years started reading social analyses of the movement, and was most disappointed: there was nothing I felt I didn’t already know. This convinced me that there’s nothing quite like being in a movement to understand movement dynamics. However, that was a long time ago, and research into social movements was far less developed than it is today, and I don’t recollect any overview with many insights such as Protest.

Social movements are central to many of the advances that we take for granted today, including overcoming slavery, preventing nuclear war, and challenging racial discrimination and the subjugation of women. I recommend Jasper’s Protest both for movement participants to get a broader view of what they are part of and for outsiders who want a sense of what really goes on in movements.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Feeling good when others suffer

The emotion of schadenfreude — joy in the pain of others — is widespread but has some dangerous associations.

Peanuts-schadenfreude

Imagine that your favourite team is about to play a crucial match, and you hear the news that the other team’s star player has suffered a serious injury during training. You might feel sorry for the player but you also might initially feel a surge of pleasure about the improved prospects for your team.

Another scenario: you have been striving hard at work to be chosen for an important assignment, but are frustrated by a talented rival. Your rival suffers a setback due to a family crisis. You are outwardly concerned but may feel some satisfaction in the turn of events.

Your next-door neighbour is outwardly successful, with a prestigious high-paying job, a large house, fancy car and immaculately presented family. By comparison, you are not nearly so well off. Imagine your feeling when a news report reveals that your neighbour has been the victim of a swindle and will have to downsize.

These are examples of the emotion called schadenfreude, a German word meaning pleasure resulting from someone else’s pain. To learn more about it, I recommend Richard H. Smith’s book The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature (Oxford University Press, 2013). Smith describes, in an accessible manner, research on schadenfreude, providing everyday examples drawn from popular culture, for example The Simpsons.

Joy-of-Pain

Although schadenfreude is often experienced, it is seldom acknowledged publicly or even privately. It is not seen as proper to gloat over someone else’s pain, so in many cases this is a secret emotion. However, there are some circumstances in which schadenfreude is more acceptable and freely expressed: when the other person seems to deserve their suffering.

Smith describes the US television programme To Catch a Predator in which men were enticed, through online conversations, to visit a house where they expected to meet an underage person, possibly for sex. The house was rigged with numerous cameras and the men were filmed as they were informed that their activities and responses were being recorded for broadcast on television. For the men, this was close to the ultimate in humiliation: they were being exposed on national television as likely paedophiles.

ToCatchAPredatorNew

Smith notes that paedophilia is so universally reviled that it seems acceptable to revel in the acute agony of these men. They are suffering and many audience members feel it is only fair. Yet the background to each man’s visit was omitted from the program. Some of them may have been victims of child sexual abuse, and there was no explanation of what led up to their visit, nor any proof that they were guilty of paedophilia. The program was set up to enable viewers to enjoy the men’s humiliation, a spectacle called humilitainment.

The example of To Catch a Predator is just one example of what Smith calls the dark side of human nature. Humans are constantly comparing themselves to others, and improve their self-esteem when they come out on top. Studies show that when assessments of personal qualities are subjective, most people think they are better than average. For example, nearly everyone thinks their sense of humour is above average.

Social comparison is almost universal, and when people peg their self-image by comparisons, it is a short step to envy, a toxic emotion. Envy is the resentment and ill will felt when observing that someone has something — money, possessions, talent, good looks, fame — that you don’t. Few people like to feel inferior. Envy often includes a wish for the envied person to suffer or be brought down. This sets the stage for schadenfreude.

Nelson-schadenfreude

It is one thing to be secretly pleased when someone else suffers, because you feel better about yourself, and another to take action to bring about another person’s suffering. Smith, to probe the darkest aspect of these emotions, considers the actions and emotions of Germans during the Nazi occupation of Europe, in particular their attitudes towards the Jews. At the time, many Jews were highly successful, disproportionately filling the ranks of doctors, lawyers and media proprietors, so it is plausible that their high social standing evoked envy. However, few people like to admit to envy, so Hitler and other Nazis instead devalued the Jews — including with furious condemnations — thereby providing a pretext for harming them. Smith provides some telling bits of evidence suggesting that schadenfreude was one of the emotions involved in the genocide of the Jews.

He is also careful to note that in ordinary circumstances, envy is held in check and does not lead to actions to hurt others. To provide a more positive note, Smith gives some examples of individuals who have learned how to rise above any suggestion of schadenfreude. He tells of a man he knew, widely esteemed by others, who never said an ill word about anyone.

Mr-Schadenfreude

In psychology, the “fundamental error of attribution” refers to a widespread mental process of assuming that the behaviour of others reflects their inner purpose. If someone makes some nasty comments, we may assume they have a hostile personality. Yet there are often explanations for behaviour based on circumstance. The other person may be physically ill or suffering extreme stress, which could help to explain their comments.

When our own poor behaviour is involved, we readily blame it on external factors. The fundamental error of attribution involves interpreting actions by others differently than our own.

This is pertinent to schadenfreude. Our own misfortunes, we may feel, are unfair or due to circumstances beyond our control, but the misfortunes of others are attributed to their own flaws. To overcome the tendency to think this way, it is useful to try to think of possible external causes for others’ behaviour. The man who Smith knew learned to do this, and hence did not join in the usual gossiping about the foibles and misfortunes of others.

Smith offers as an exemplar Abraham Lincoln, who early in his career learned the wisdom of not condemning others and subsequently showed amazing restraint in his comments to them. After General George Meade won the battle of Gettysburg but failed to follow up by pursuing the Robert E. Lee’s army and thereby winning the civil war then and there, Lincoln was immensely frustrated, especially because he had futilely appealed to Meade to pursue Lee’s army. Lincoln wrote a letter to Meade expressing his distress at his shortcoming — but he never sent it, and it was found in Lincoln’s papers subsequently. To have sent the letter would have pained Meade but to no purpose.

Police-lights-chadenfreude

The Joy of Pain is valuable because it tackles a topic seldom probed outside the scholarly literature. Without being pointed, it can encourage the reader to reflect on emotions and behaviour in a new light, taking into account social comparisons and the toxic consequences of envy.

Brian Martin
bmartin@uow.edu.au

Thanks to Sharon Crozier-De Rosa and Roger Patulny for useful comments.