ON THE PERILS OF SOCIAL MINDLESSNESS
BY AGATA MARIA KRAJ AND DIANA KLOSE
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Name: Agata Maria Kraj
Field: Political Science/ Political Psychology
Occupation: Doctoral Student at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences
Research Interests: Stereotypes, Prejudice and Discrimination, Electoral Politics, Political Psychology
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Name: Diana Klose
Occupation: Doctoral Student at the Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences
Research Interests: Smartphone-based assessment, Intelligence assessment (esp. declarative knowledge), Psychometric modeling
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▐ People are social animals, and have a natural tendency to form groups. From an evolutionary perspective, this was likely an adaptation that allowed our ancestors to protect themselves more effectively from predators and potential villains. And although our reality has changed immensely since the times of Lucy the Neanderthal, our instinct to form communities has remained, and continues to profoundly shape all of its aspects.
How far we have gone since then is quite striking when we look back at the achievements of our society, including the technological and engineering advancements, or the cultural and societal accomplishments. Yet, despite all the innovations and changes, in some ways, we are still like our ancestors when it comes to our mindset and, if we learned anything from Charles Darwin, it is that changing this will require quite a bit of time, but also some effort on our part. The purpose of this essay is to outline certain cognitive and motivational mechanisms that, for better or for worse, guide us in our daily lives and our interactions. Most importantly, we focus on whether or not there are ways for us to adapt or modify them when we recognize they no longer serve us.
"Oppression has no logic
– just a self-fulfilling prophecy,
justified by a self-perpetuating system."
- Gloria Steinem
One of the clearest demonstrations of our communal past is exemplified by a line of social psychological studies indicating that people’s concept of self, the personal identity they create for themselves, is very much intertwined with the types of groups that they belong to. Psychologists maintain that everyone has multiple selves, which are related to the different social contexts they operate in, and different group memberships they possess. Those multiple selves can be defined as individual perceptions of the features that define the group and make it a coherent whole. Different social contexts are likely to temporarily increase the salience of, or activate in psychological lingo, particular identities that make a person feel, think, and act in line with the demands of the situation. Therefore, our individual notions of who we are stem in part from the kinds of groups that we belong to.
The downside of the motivational perspective described above is that maintaining such an outlook is likely to result in behaviors which favor the group we belong to, or in-group, at the expense of the out-group, the group we are not members of. This happens even when people are artificially assigned to so-called minimal groups, that is groups distinguished by characteristics as meaningless as the colors of their shirts or preferences for certain types of candy! Even such simulated circumstances instigate what is called in-group favoritism and compel people to act in ways that boost their self-esteem through placing their in-group in a more positive light and derogating the out-group at the same time, based on an arbitrary dimension.
But what does all this mean, you might ask? Are we inherently flawed for trying to sort the people, the events, and the things we encounter into categories? Not at all! It’s an absolutely normal, and, most importantly, a very useful cognitive strategy to deal with the myriad of stimuli that we encounter every minute of every day, potentially more so than ever, considering how many personal devices a statistical consumer uses. Categorization is a cognitive tool that people use in order to quickly make sense of the world around them. Without such shortcuts, the simplest decisions would likely take us ages, and our functioning in the society would be seriously compromised.
___They do, however, come with a caveat – stereotypes.
While they can be positive or negative in nature, they nevertheless do not allow for the possibility of seeing the out-group members as individuals with their own preferences, personalities, talents, or even vices for that matter. And before you know it, you begin to effortlessly place people in neat, black and white categories, which either evoke empathy and understanding, or only instigate condemnation instead. Such a tendency becomes more pronounced when groups are forced to compete for scarce resources, as is emphasized by the line of research, which takes an economic perspective on the matter. This competition oftentimes gives rise to ethnocentrism and nationalism, and may instigate outgroup stereotyping and behaviors that would normally be frowned upon, or downright condemned by our moral code. The fear of the other, or sometimes simply the unknown, begins to permeate many people’s thinking, precluding empathy towards and commiseration with the out-group. Different customs, traditions, language, even cuisine, serve as reminders of their otherness, and make it difficult to see how similar people are deep down. Because, at our core, we all wish for the same things – to be loved, appreciated, cared for, fed, and to have a roof over our heads.
___To some degree, the apparent unwillingness to show empathy can also be justified by our limited cognitive capacity.
After all, we simply cannot empathize with everyone we encounter, and attune ourselves to the suffering of the whole world. And, the further away the suffering is from us, the easier it is to keep it out of sight and out of mind. The problems begin when it appears right in front of our doorstep. Even a cursory glance at the current events gives us plenty of illustrations of the mechanisms we have just described. The coverage leading up to the Brexit referendum, and its aftermath, present us with a discourse filled with animosity towards immigrants. Such sentiments are also very much a part of the rhetoric concerning the influx of refugees that Europe is struggling to solve now. Both discourses contain elements of more than mere xenophobia, of course, and partially play on people’s fear of an unstable economic future. Many people dread the high unemployment rates and the constantly increasing costs of living, and are apprehensive about the influx of immigrants, who might put a further strain on the economy, and potentially “steal” jobs away from the locals.
Such fears are oftentimes exploited, not only by the media, which are becoming more sensationalist than ever, but also by different political actors and institutions. As Gloria Steinem’s timely quote in the beginning of this essay points out, discrimination is perpetuated by a system which allocates its resources in asymmetrical and unjust ways. Particularly the far right-wing and populist parties know how to use fearmongering tactics to whip votes in their favor, turning different societal groups against one another, under the auspices of creating a better, more just society. In reality, however, much like any of the other actors who wield power in their hands, their goal is to maintain the status quo and the privilege that they have come into.
___Having said that, what can we do? How can we remedy the situation?
Let us not give into this disenchanted view of the status quo. There are a number of ways that the problems of discrimination can be tackled on the macro level. Legislation is one very powerful means to do that. Introducing quotas to combat the persistent underrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities in parliaments. Constitutional amendments guaranteeing equality for all members of the society, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, ethnic or religious backgrounds, to name a few, give people who are discriminated against a legal basis to demand better treatment. Equally important, working towards social equality and the redistribution of resources and power should be a priority for countries seeking to diminish discriminatory behaviors. If history is any indication, support for extremist parties is highest at times of economic turmoil, giving them leverage to fuel people’s fears of poverty and hardship. In the process, such parties picture themselves as the only viable alternative to set things right, and, more often than not, provide scapegoats to be blamed for the adversities and austerity. Jewish people in Nazi Germany, Polish immigrants in the UK or refugees from Syria in Europe are all illustrations of such political propaganda that come to mind.
But what about the things that we can do in our everyday lives? The sense of powerlessness that ordinary citizens, individuals like you and us, the authors of this essay, feel in the face of inequality and oppression, can potentially be remedied, albeit through effortful action on our part. Research indicates that stereotypes can be particularly resistant to change. Even in the face of clear evidence that a particular categorization is untrue, rather than disconfirm it altogether, people tend to form subcategories for the particular instances negating it. So, for instance, a woman who is very dominant, or an Asian person who is not good at math, will be classified as exceptions and put into special categories of “dominant woman” and “Asian not good at math”. This leaves the broader stereotype immune to disconfirmation.
While this may sound grim, we firmly believe that the first step towards any sort of change happens through awareness of the issue. Yes, our cognitive processing is selective and might lead to particular biases, but the more we stay mindful of this, and the more we catch ourselves falling into such traps, the easier it will become to steer clear of these pitfalls. Of course, we do not always possess the capacity to do that, but, as with anything else, baby steps can have a powerful effect. Furthermore, this awareness should also extend to our knowing that we share more similarities than differences. Language, cuisine, customs, dress code, are only the tip of the iceberg, most visible to us, but obscuring the true universal values that motivate our existence and our pursuit of happiness, and avoidance of suffering.
___One of the most effective ways of bringing two groups together,
which have a history of animosity caused by competition for scarce resources (think for instance: Schroedinger’s immigrant, the paradox that immigrants are going to steal the in-groups’ jobs, while at the same time, live off social benefits), is to create superordinate goals for both groups. In other words, make both groups work towards the same goal that is more important than any goods that they may have been fighting for before. Social movements, be it those promoting LGBT rights, social equality, or women’s rights, are very important in this respect, as they serve as a link between the individual and the governmental actors within the society. They have the power to raise awareness, and point out the illegitimacy of the status quo and make the creation of a new social order conceivable - conditions absolutely vital for instigating positive changes. They also have the capacity to put forward crystallized interests for each group, which facilitates mobilization and collective action.
This brings us back to the need for social equality, and the inevitable relinquishing of power that the haves will be required to do on behalf of the have nots. Most crucially, as the recently passed Elie Wiesel hints at with his profound quote, we cannot afford to look away from the injustice. We must find the strength in ourselves, as individuals and societies, to pay full attention to the instances where discrimination takes place and where our help and empathy are needed. Even if the group we belong to might not share our opinions, at times we must take the risk and step out of our comfort zone, to honor the thoughts and feelings compelling us to act. Seeing how powerful an influence the mechanism of social comparisons described earlier can exert, we know that it is a lot to ask to support the out-group rather than to preserve our own privileges. Yet, this might just be the kind of social and human achievement that could clearly distinguish us from our stone age ancestors. ◼
"Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe."
- Elie Wiesel
Notes: "The psychological concepts, theories, and research findings we refer to were checked against the information provided by a popular textbook by Thomas Gilovich, Dacher Keltner, and Richard E. Nisbett called "Social Psychology", Ronnie Janoff-Bulman’s "Shattered Assumptions" regarding the discussion on stereotype disconfirmation as well as a website concerning social identity theory maintained by the University of Twente:
The Gloria Steinem quote was also found in the aforementioned textbook, while the Elie Weisel wisdom, expressed in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, was found on his website.
Image Credits: © Eutah Mizushima