How Liberals and the GOP Can See Eye to Eye: The Art of Political Persuasion

In his inaugural address Trump declared to unify our country stating that “A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.” Since his signature on the disruptive executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim countries dried, he has ushered in what some politicians believe is the most divisive political climate since the Civil War. Protests have ensued with no end in sight as most Americans declare the order unconstitutional, un-American and, frankly, illogical given that virtually no refugees have committed terrorist attacks on the United States. Perhaps the most surprising reactions from Americans have originated from Republicans in their unwavering support of the clearly inhumane order. Top Republicans, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence, even reversed their stances on the ban as both previously classified the concept of a ban as unconstitutional:

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Liberals have tried to reason with their conservative brothers, citing the fact that these people are fleeing from terrorism, not causing it, as well as by using examples of Anne Frank and survivors of the Holocaust who were denied asylum by the United States after World War II (including Trump’s top adviser/ son-in-law Jared Kushner’s own grandparents). The problem with this is that the morality of conservatives and liberals differ so greatly to the point that trying to tug at the heart strings of Republicans is a waste of breath and cleverly drawn protest signs.

Psychologists have recently begun to study the deep divisions between the GOP and everyone else in the world through the Moral Foundations Theory. This theory states that there are five moral judgements that act as the foundation for the formation of moral beliefs and judgements. They include: harm/care foundation (concerned with one’s suffering and need to alleviate suffering), fairness/cheating foundation (concerned with justice, equality and discrimination), loyalty/betrayal foundation (prioritizes one’s in group over all other groups), authority/subversion foundation (respect for higher-ranked individuals) and sanctity/degradation foundation (concerned with sacredness, impurity and avoiding disgust-inducing behaviors).

Researchers have been able to effectively apply the Moral Foundations Theory to political ideology worldwide. Conservative parties rely on the foundations of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation in order to make moral judgements in policy. Their admiration for the current executive order arises from the fact that they prioritize and value American’s over immigrants, see Trump as a high ranking official that knows what he is doing and deserves respect, and that immigrants and refugees are dirty people that will dirty our own country.

Conversely, research has shown that liberals rely on the foundations of harm/care and fairness/cheating in their development of political ideations. To democrats the immigration ban is unconstitutional because it infringes not only on the Constitution but defiles these moral foundations. Liberals want to welcome refugees into our country in order to alleviate their suffering and cite the fact that America is a country built on immigrants and that it is only fair to extend immigration policies that benefited our ancestors to a new generation.

While liberals and conservatives are wired differently in terms of morality, new research has shown that these moral foundations can be used to our advantage in political persuasion. Matthew Feinberg, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has painstakingly researched the behaviors of Democrats and Republicans, including how they interact with one another. Recently, Feinberg has published studies on how to use the concepts of moral foundations to elicit political persuasion. His solution? You have to appeal to the other groups morals.

 

“Some existing research suggests the plausibility of moral reframing as a strategy for political persuasion,” writes Feinberg in his paper From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence? “A variety of studies shows that messages are more persuasive when they match the traits of the target.”

This means that in an effort to persuade conservatives to see their side on a variety of issues liberals must find a way to frame their arguments that hits one of their moral foundations of loyalty, authority, or sanctity. Olga Khazan, a writer for The Atlantic provides a good statement that encompasses republican morals in a persuasive statement against the ban:

“These refugees and immigrants are just like our family members who came to America in years past to seek a better life. All our ancestors wanted was to live the American dream, and that’s why today’s immigrants and refugees have chosen to come to America, so they too can live that same American dream that brought our families here. That dream is what our nation was founded on, it is what brought our grandparents and great-grandparents to this great land, and it is the great success story that these immigrants want to be a part of.”

 On the other hand, if conservatives want to persuade liberals to see that this immigration ban is in fact good for our country then they must try to steep their argument with ideas that include care and fairness.Arguing that refugees can take needed resources away from American children, elders and the sick may soften some liberal tensions about the ban.

But do these alternative arguments really work in political persuasion? Feinberg tested whether statements tailored to either a conservative or liberal audience can shift their perceptions of public policy in two separate studies.

The first of the two studies delved into public perception of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Both liberals and conservatives were asked to gauge their support for universal health care after reading a short article that framed the policy in terms of fairness (a liberal moral foundation) or purity (a conservative moral foundation). Arguments in the articles either heralded the ACA as an instrument of fairness (that health care is a universal human right) or that it combated impurity (by the avenue that sick people are dirty and impure).

Amazingly, conservatives that read the article positioning Obamacare as a way to rid America of the sick and impure showed more support than conservatives that read a paragraph arguing that health care is a human right and should be allowed to all out of fairness. This effect was not just limited to conservatives as liberals showed opposite results. More liberals supported the ACA when it was described as being fair than as a way to help sick people.

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Feinberg expanded upon this study to include debate over traditional conservative viewpoints. Similar to the first study, both democratic and republican participants were asked to measure their support after reading an article of information, this time in regards to increasing military spending. Traditionally, conservatives in the United States are for amplified military spending while liberals would rather see the billions of dollars on other governmental programs such as Medicaid.

Again, arguments were framed as either appealing to the fairness moral foundation of liberals or the conservative moral foundations of loyalty and authority. One paragraph described increasing spending as a way of increasing the size of the military to include disadvantaged and poverty-stricken individuals saving said individuals from inequality issues(promoting fairness),  while the other paragraph ensured a tone of loyalty and authority by describing our military as a means for unification and keeping America the “greatest nation in the world.”

Unsurprisingly, Liberals were significantly more supportive of increased military spending when it was posited as a means of helping the poor than the condition in which the spending was justified to keep America great. Conservatives on the other hand, were more likely to show support after reading the article that was framed in terms of loyalty than after the article rooted in fairness.

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These studies support the fact that differing parties can persuade others on individual issues if they can effectually engage their audience. Feinerg concludes in his paper that:

“Research has shown that while liberals are unmoved by arguments in favor of a conservative policy that are grounded in the more conservative moral foundations, their support for the conservative position increases after reading messages grounded in the more liberal foundations, and this research also demonstrates the reverse when it comes to liberals persuading conservative targets.”

The 2016 election proved to be like no other election as individual actions became the center of attention rather than their proposed legislation. We can all famously remember Trump attacking Clinton for her email “scandal” while the message of Clinton’s advertisements largely revolved around the revolting behavior Trump showed throughout the election cycle. Debates seldom saw talk of any actual policy but rather became a boxing match: the heavyweight GOP elephant vs the spry lightweight donkey. So how can we persuade people of opposing parties when they care more about candidates than policy?

Luckily, Feinberg continued his research to include this past tumultuous election.  In a yet unpublished study, the researchers adapted the concept of moral reframing to Trump and Clinton supporters. This study revolved around the liberal moral foundation of fairness and the conservative moral foundation of loyalty out of sake for brevity.

The first study conducted centered on the public perception of our now President Donald Trump. Participants, who identified as conservative, were presented with arguments against Trump with one framed in the context of loyalty and one in the context of fairness.  Information regarding Trump’s lack of loyalty pointed to the fact that he had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War and implications that Trump is using the presidency to advance his own fiscal gains from his businesses. Fairness arguments against Trump included his quotes that discriminated against Muslims that would prevent them from being treated fairly as well as the opinion that his statements against Mexicans, African Americans, women, the disabled and practically anyone who isn’t a rich white male are discriminatory and would foster prejudice throughout America. The subjects were asked to rate Trump on warmth, acceptance as President, and likelihood to vote for him.

Similar to the first study conducted a year prior, the conservatives who read the statements against Trump rooted in loyalty registered him as less warm, said that they would not accept him as President, and stated that they were less likely to vote for him than the conservatives who read the arguments regarding fairness.

Hilary Clinton was not immune to the study as it was replicated for a second audience of Democrats, this time with arguments of fairness and loyalty being made against the former First Lady. In terms of fairness, researchers argued that Clinton accepted money from Wall Street Bankers to give speeches while millions of Americans experienced poverty during the recession. The loyalty arguments framed Clinton as less loyal by bringing up her involvement in Benghazi and that she failed our military (a huge prospect of loyalty to conservatives as pointed out in the previous study).

Liberals who were presented with information regarding Clinton as less fair described Clinton as less warm, but had no effect on whether they were less likely to accept her as President or whether they would vote for her in the election compared to liberals who were presented with the loyalty arguments.

Feinberg’s multiple research studies exist as proof that conservatives and liberals can be persuaded by each other if they reach out on issues that exist within the parameters of their morals. But in our tortuous political climate it is being made clearer day by day that our ability to sit down and argue peacefully with opposite parties is dwindling down to nothing, put into effect by our candidates who could not do the same no doubt. When conservatives cannot accept factual arguments, liberals become upset and succumb to protesting in an effort to get their view point across.

If we are to truly unite, as Trump emptily promised, we must see the differences in our judgements and appeal to those, as seen in Feinberg’s research. Conservatives must learn to see factual statistics not as attacks on authority but as a way to keep our nation great. Liberals must not automatically judge conservatives as unfair but try to see their concerns for safety and loyalty as viable. If not, we will surely be in perpetual limbo of protests and attacks, stuck in the same boxing match between elephant and donkey.  And when a TKO happens, we will all feel it.

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Us and Them: The Psychology Behind Xenophobia and the Muslim Ban

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The Merriam-Wesbter dictionary defines xenophobia as a “fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign.” The next print edition for the publication will definitely reference Trump’s immigrant and refugee ban as the perfect illustration of xenophobia. The fact that a president could ban an entire religion from distinct countries only promotes xenophobia while also highlighting the intense paranoia that our leader feels of outsiders. So how can somebody become xenophobic to the point of isolating themselves, and our country, from the rest of the world?

Psychology has long researched the idea of xenophobia, especially after tragic events such as the Holocaust and assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The recent political climate has again stirred interest in nationwide prejudice, bringing evidence back into the spotlight as to how xenophobia can override common sense and logic. Here are some common discussions surrounding the psychology behind xenophobia:

We Have to Look Back to Look Forward

Sorry Christians, but humans did not appear on Earth in perfect form. We have spent millions of years evolving from common ancestors such as apes. It should come as no surprise that the evolutionary adaptations necessary to survive back in caveman days are still present in our highly evolved brains.

“Us vs. Them” grew from an evolutionary need during our days as apes and humanoid cavemen.

“I think there’s probably a very deep-rooted fear and suspicion of outsiders,” says Michael Wilson, a primatologist at the University of Minnesota.

The scientist, who studies apes for a living, cites behavior in apes as evidence for our hostility to people who belong to other groups. When two groups of apes bump into each other in the wild, it will always end in conflict. According to Wilson, the apes will threaten each other with loud calls, perform aggressive gestures and at times become physically violent.

Remember Harambe? When a little boy fell into the gorilla sanctuary at Cincinnati Zoo he grabbed the boy and began to drag him throughout the moat in the exhibit. Zoo officials reacted immediately to save the boy because they knew how territorial apes are by design. Harambe saw a boy, an outsider, as an immediate threat and dealt with this the only way his brain could let him: through violence. Whether he would actually kill the boy is indeterminable, but evolutionary psychology bets that after interacting with the boy more the violence would escalate.

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RIP Harambe

“If they can grab a member of the other community, they may beat on them, bite them, and continue doing so until they’re very severely injured or killed,” says Wilson of apes.

Wilson goes on to say that it makes sense that chimps defend their territories so vigilantly. A bigger territory leads to more food for the group and a better chance for survival.

The idea of protecting one’s territory is one aspect of apes that passed on to early humans. Before the invention of civilizations, humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies where one’s group had to work together for survival. No doubt the early humans had to protect their food and shelter from not just animal predators, but from other groups who would poach food for themselves. The need to protect one’s group, and conversely the hatred of other groups, came from the need to survive, and this would be imprinted in our brains for the rest of time.

We Can Be Prejudiced on the Most Arbitrary of Traits

In a hallmark experiment, schoolteacher Jane Elliott wanted to teach her class what it felt like to be prejudiced against after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Elliott proclaimed to the class that the blue-eyed students were superior to their brown-eyed peers by stating that:

“Blue-eyed people are the better people in this room. Blue-eyed people are smarter than brown-eyed people… this is a fact: blue eyed people are better than brown-eyed people… the blue-eyed people get five extra minutes of recess while the brown-eyed people have to stay in. The brown-eyed people do not get to use the drinking fountain, you’ll have to use paper cups. You brown-eyed people are not to play with the blue-eyed people on the playground because you are not as good as blue eyed people.”

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Elliott went on to say that brown-eyed people were to wear collars to identify them more easily (similar to how Jews had to wear stars of David during the Holocaust). When the students were asked to open their books to start a lesson, brown-eyed people were slower to do so. When Ms. Elliott declared that her yard stick was missing, students in the class pointed out that a brown-eyed person probably stole it. The blue-eyed students bullied the brown-eyed students by declaring that they weren’t smart, should be beaten if they disobeyed, and that they don’t deserve seconds at lunch.

The treatment of the brown-eyed children had a demonstrable effect on their own behavior. One student remarked that: “It seemed like when we were down on the bottom everything bad was happening to us. The way they treated you, it felt like you didn’t even want to try to do anything.” The brown-eyed students started to perform worse on phonetic tests, they began hitting the children who called them names and refused to answer questions in class.

To further test how easy it is to create prejudice, Elliott reversed the proclamation, stating that it was actually the brown-eyed children who were better than their blue-eyed counterparts. The results were strikingly similar with now the blue-eyed children performing worse on tests, being picked on, and not wanting to participate in class.

Elliott’s unconventional experiment shows how groups can be formed on the simplest of traits. The children never saw eye color as a basis for discrimination before, but were emboldened by a superior (their teacher) to form these ingroups and outgroups based on eye color.

For the naysayers that believe this is only because they are children, studies have shown that when minorities are presented with an identifying question before a standardized test (i.e. what is your race?) they perform significantly worse than when such a question was absent. In addition, the prejudices that we form in childhood are much harder to get rid of in adulthood, as seen in an earlier post here.

When We Are Fearful, We Think Threats Are Much Closer than They Are

Researchers from New York University conducted three studies on which people were asked to estimate how close immediate threats are to them.

In the first study, fans of the New York Yankees were asked to estimate how far away Fenway Stadium (home of their rivals the Boston Red Sox) is to NYU, and asked the same question to students who did not identify as fans of Derek Jeter’s old team. Researchers found that Yankees fans believed Fenway to be closer than the non-Yankee fans.

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In the second study, researchers presented half of participants with information that portrayed Columbia University as threatening to NYU students while the other half received no such information. The students who were given negative information about Columbia rated the university as being physically closer to NYU than the students who did not receive incriminating information.

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Finally in the third study, Americans who perceived Mexican immigrants as a threat to the United States estimated New Mexico City as closer to New York City than those who did not perceive a threat.

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These studies combined give a clear indication that those who fear outside groups observe a more eminent threat than reality actually imposes. This falls in line with the psychological theory called the representative heuristic.  This states that things that happen in the media are more likely to happen then in normal probability.

This is why people are more afraid to ride in planes than cars: the national media covers more plane crashes than car crashes, making it seem as if they happen more often than in reality. The national news is more likely to cover a shooting or an attack that is committed by a terrorist group than a local American. Take for example the “terrorist” who attacked Ohio State University last year. He did not actually kill anyone, but Trump and other politicians called for more extreme vetting for refugees after. A local shooting carried out by a local citizen may kill five or ten people and only make it to the local news by comparison. The idea that terrorists are all over, as perpetuated by the media, can override comparable statistics saying that it is far more likely to get struck by lightning than to be confronted by a terrorist.

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We Are Able to Dehumanize Humans, No Matter How Much They Look Like Us

When critics of Michelle and Barrack Obama lash out at the two dignified leaders calling them apes, it is not just evidence of racism, but of dehumanization. These people do not even see the leaders of our country as human, due to the fact that they are in a different social group.

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Dehumanization first appeared in our vocabularies during the Holocaust in which Jews were deprived of their names and given a number instead. Germans stood by Hitler as they no longer saw the Jews as people, neighbors and friends, but as workers indebted to the Reich.

Psychologists have found that dehumanization exists far after Auschwitz closed its doors. Psychologists from Northwestern University have studied dehumanization as recently as 2015. In their paper The Ascent of Man: Theoretical and Empirical Evidence for Blatant Dehumanization, researchers looked into how Americans viewed Americans, Arabs, Canadians, Chinese, European and Muslim groups using their ascent measures.

Unsurprisingly, Europeans, and Japanese were rated as similarly evolved to Americans whereas South Koreans, Chinese, and Mexican Immigrants were rated as significantly less evolved than Americans. Arabs and Muslims were rated as 10.6 and 14.0 points less evolved than Americans respectively.

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The researchers then decided to see if dehumanization is more present after tragic world events than when they completed the first study. Three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, the scientists asked participants the same survey questions for two weeks. Not only did Americans still rate Arabs as less evolved, but blatant dehumanization measures increased as well, symbolizing that Americans dehumanized Arabs as less than human more significantly after perceiving a threat.

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But Not All Hope Is Lost

The American Psychological Association has published a set of guidelines in response to a conference on racism held at the United Nations. Psychologists break down solutions to solving the problems into two categories: exposing racism’s roots and socializing people for tolerance and peace. The guidelines are as followed:

Exposing racism’s roots:

  • Acknowledge racist practices and urge major institutions to fight them.
  • Establish institutes on racial equity and mental health promotion.
  • Eliminate racist bias in research.
  • Reduce racism-related physical and mental health disparities
  • Conduct more research on perpetrators

Socializing people for tolerance and peace:

  • Collect statistical data on race that takes into account “economic and social indicators, including…mental and physical health care” to help close social and economic gaps
  • Bolster measures “to fulfill the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” by working to eliminate racism-induced health disparities.
  • Promote fair treatment and respect for migrants, refugees and indigenous peoples.
  • Increase tolerance and diversity
  • Stop trafficking of women and children
  • End racial profiling and discrimination on the part of law enforcement and government officials
  • Fight xenophobia, gender and racial discrimination and other forms of intolerance

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If we can change our society to enforce these rules, if we can learn to have empathy for other groups, if we can learn to look at correct statistics instead of relying on emotions and lies, then the road to eliminating xenophobia will be far less bumpy. We have to start seeing the refugees and immigrants as actual people, as someone’s parent, child, friend, and not as just people from the other side of the world, even if our leader is incapable of doing such. America was built as a nation of immigrants, someone taking a chance on our ancestors, and we have to do to same. These are actual people, not hypothetical  “what ifs” on a psychology study.

Trump Isn’t the First Psychopath in the Oval Office (and He Probably Won’t Be the Last)

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Today is January 20th, 2017. The first day of Donald Trump’s presidency and for most, the first day of the end of the world. We’ve constantly seen him belittle others on Twitter, condone sexual assault, and exert such grandiose assertions about multiple things (having the most diverse cabinet, bringing back jobs that have nothing to do with his position, and declaring himself so charming, that Mexico will listen to him to build a wall costing billions for no good reason, to name a few instances) that it is no wonder most label the “politician” as a psychopath. In fact, many psychologists are exercising their professional opinions, calling Trump not agreeable, neurotic, and unusually aggressive, many traits of psychopathy (you can read one such account here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771/). So how did we actually elect a psychological monster to lead our country? Well it turns out we have done it before.

Researchers from Emory University began a study in 2010 delving into the psychopathic traits of 42 past presidents (up until and including George W. Bush) with the notion that some aspects of psychopathy (fearlessness, interpersonal dominance) can actually be beneficial to the leader of our country.

“Despite the lengthy research tradition linking psychopathy to unsuccessful behavior, a consistent strand of clinical lore has tied psychopathy, or at least certain features of it, to socially successful behavior across a variety of domains, including the business world, politics, and everyday life,” cites Scott O. Lilienfeld, first author of the paper. “These important results raise the possibility that psychopathy, or at least some features of it, are associated with certain aspects of adaptive functioning in workplace settings, although they may also be associated with certain aspects of maladaptive functioning.”

To test whether the presidents in fact shared traits consistent with psychopaths, researchers handed our surveys to the biographers of every US president, people who know the actions and personalities of the presidents best. Instead of answering the questions about themselves, they were asked to compile answers on behalf of their biographical subjects to questions taken from the Psychopathic Personality Inventory, PPI for short. The PPI consists of two factors: fearless dominance (social potency, stress immunity, and fearlessness) and self-centered impulsivity (careful nonplanfuless, impulse nonconformity, Machiavellian egocentricity and blame externalization). The psychologists also asked historians for ratings on presidential performance, leadership, persuasiveness, crisis management skills and Congressional relations to determine if certain traits on the PPI were correlated with a successful presidency.

Without further ado, here are the top psychopathic presidents according to the research:

1.      John F Kennedy

2.      William Clinton

3.      Andrew Jackson

4.      Theodore Roosevelt

5.      Lyndon B Johnson

6.      Franklin D Roosevelt

7.      Chester Arthur

8.      George W Bush

9.      Ronald Reagan

10.   Richard Nixon

11.   Andrew Johnson

12.   James Polk

13.   John Adams

14.   John Tyler

15.   Martin van Buren

16.   Woodrow Wilson

17.   Warren Harding

18.   William Harrison

19.   Benjamin Harrison

20.   James Earl Carter

21.   Zachary Taylor

22.   George Washington

23.   Thomas Jefferson

24.   Ulysses S Grant

25.   John Q Adams

26.   Dwight D Eisenhower

27.   Gerald Ford

28.   Abraham Lincoln

29.   James Garfield

30.   Harry S Truman

31.   Herbert Hoover

32.   Franklin Pierce

33.   James Madison

34.   Calvin Coolidge

35.   George H Bush

36.   Grover Cleveland

37.   James Buchanan

38.   William Taft

39.   Rutherford Hayes

40.   James Monroe

41.   Millard Fillmore

42.   William McKinley

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The face of a real psychopath

If you are wondering how the hell Nixon didn’t clench the top spot, it boils down to the fact that some aspects of psychopathy are associated with being a better leader. The researchers found that higher levels of fearless dominance were associated with higher approval ratings, better leadership, and more initiative in starting projects. John F. Kennedy scored especially high here for his revolutionary work in the civil rights movement, while more forgettable presidents such as Van Buren scored lower.

In contrast, impulse antisociality ratings were negatively correlated with presidential success. Conversely, they were associated with Congressional impeachments, unsavory character and tolerating unethical behavior. It is no surprise that Bill Clinton snagged the highest rating in this category due to him impeachment and overall “discretions”.

Psychologist Kevin Dutton echoed the results of the study saying “Both great and terrible leaders score higher than the general population for psychopathic traits, but it is the mix of those traits that determines success.”

So how would our sparkly new President do if he were given the PPI? Recently Dr. Dutton took it upon himself to find out, while also contrasting our leader with infamous dictators, monarchs, and conquerors from history. Here is his list:

  1. Saddam Hussein, former President of Iraq (with a score of 189)
  2. King Henry VIII, former King of England (178)
  3. Idi Amin, former President of Uganda (176)
  4. Donald Trump (171)
  5. Adolf Hitler, former fuhrer of Nazi Germany (169)
  6. William the Conqueror, former king of England (165)
  7. Saint Paul, apostle (157)
  8. Jesus, son of God (157)
  9. Winston Churchill, former Prime Minister of England (155)
  10. Napoleon Bonaparte, French military leader (153)
  11. Hilary Clinton, former Presidential candidate and hope for the future (152)

Yes, you read that correctly: Trump is more psychopathic than Hitler, especially on the traits of social influence and fearlessness. This is especially ironic given that Trump recently stated that the media treats him as if he were living in Nazi Germany:

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Donald may actually be right about something

But if Jesus was enough of a psychopath to make the list, surely it is not all doom and gloom for the incoming administration. Dutton explains that it is all about how these traits work together, stating that “someone who scores highly for being influential, fearless and cold hearted could be a decisive leader who can make dispassionate decisions. If those traits are accompanied by a high score on blaming others, they might be a genocidal demagogue.”

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On second thought, I am going to invest in a bomb shelter after today.

 

Sources:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22823288

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-psychopath-researcher-oxford-university-kevin-dutton-a7204706.html

Unfiltered Science: Why We Hate Pictures of Ourselves

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Even Kim K. takes a bad picture. Without all the filters and Photoshop that is.

We’ve all been there before: We order the most immaculate sushi, fat dripping cheeseburger or perfectly decorated cake. But it’s not enough to dig right in. No, we must waste the first ten minutes of our meals to take the perfect picture to share with our friends. In a rush to eliminate the time between getting our food and cramming it in our mouth holes, we whip out our phones, tap on the camera icon, and hover our phones in front of our faces, directed at the food. Nine times out of ten, our cameras are oriented to front-facing, meaning that instead of seeing our glorious food, we subject ourselves to seeing our own faces. “God do I really look this horrible?” we ask ourselves while shuttering and adjusting the phone to utilize the back camera.

The answer is yes. The problem isn’t the bad lighting in the restaurant or that we’re having a bad hair day. It is due to the fact that we are not accustomed to seeing pictures of ourselves.

If you are not Kim Kardashian snapping 6,000 selfies in a four day period (yes I researched that statistic), then we gather information about how we look, and specifically what our faces look like, from mirrors. And no, there aren’t magic mirrors out there that make us look much better than the average eye perceives us. It is because we look in the mirror far more times than looking at photographs of ourselves that we prefer our reversed looks in a mirror (don’t forget that mirrors present us with our reflections and not with what we actually look like straight on) in a phenomenon called the mere exposure effect.

The mere exposure effect was coined by psychologist by Robert Zajonc in 1968. He studied this effect, which states that we react more positively to things in which we have been exposed to before, with shapes, facial expressions, and nonsense words in numerous experiments. He found repeatedly that people significantly favored shapes that were more like basic shapes, facial expressions that resembled smiles (as in our experiences we have associated smiles with friendlier people), and nonsense words that look vaguely familiar to English words.

Researchers Moreland and Beach applied this concept of mere exposure to attraction in 1992. For their experiment, they enlisted the help of four research assistants with comparable features to sit in on their lectures. One assistant attended the class zero times, one attended five times, one attended ten times, and one attended the lecture 15 times in total. At the end of the semester, the researchers probed the students on which woman was the most familiar, most attractive, and most similar to themselves.

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Results from Moreland and Beach’s experiment. Note that if you want someone to think you are attractive, stalking them is still probably a bad idea. 

Unsurprisingly, the research assistant who attended the class the most (15 lectures) was rated as the most attractive and the most similar. There were no significant differences in the ratings of familiarity of the women, demonstrating that the participants did not actively look at or judge the women when they attended class. Instead, the researchers validated that the mere exposure effect can happen subconsciously. That being said, we do not have be able to actively perceive a difference in our faces in the mirror and our faces in photographs, but being exposed more times to our reflective images is enough to create a bias.

I am sure that there are some of you thinking that poor self-esteem can mediate a hatred of our looks in photographs.  I am the first one to pick out the flaws in myself when looking back at family photos (while also wanting to believe that the camera really does add 10 pounds). Researchers examined this too, and found the opposite to be true.

In their paper Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Enhancement in Self-Recognition, researchers discovered that people, on average, regard themselves as more attractive than strangers. The study consisted of pictures of participants being altered to make them look more or less appealing by melding the photos with attractive and unattractive strangers. After some interesting Photoshop, the altered pictures of the participants were mixed with pictures of foreigners. When the subjects were asked to pick out pictures of themselves in a lineup, they were significantly quicker in identifying the pictures in which they were melded with the attractive stranger than the pictures that were altered with the unattractive stranger.

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Paradigm used in self-recognition study. Notice how both unattractive male and female targets look like meth addicts while attractive targets look like Eastern European fashion models. 

These findings suggest that we actually perceive our visages as more attractive than they actually are, which can lead to additional disappointment when we look back on our vacation photos and see less than chiseled faces and perfectly coiffed hair.

It doesn’t help that most celebrities, a.k.a the most beautiful people alive, can easily delete and transform their most hated features in order to create symmetrical faces, hourglass shapes and bulging muscles, but we common folk can use technology as well.  New filter are being added to Snapchat regularly and even the most novice computer user can flip images to reveal their reverse. Also note that on most phones, if you have a “seflie mode” and are using the front-facing camera, the pictures reverse upon processing.  Or, you know, you can learn to live with the fact that nobody, even celebrities, have perfect faces. There’s a reason that most candidates for plastic surgery reside in Hollywood.

So next time you see a bad image of yourself on your friends’ timelines, take solace: they hate pictures of themselves on your timeline too.

Study Spotlight: Why Some Americans Don’t Believe in Global Warming (and No, it’s Not Because of the Chinese)

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Evidence of climate change and global warming is everywhere. Seldom can one turn on the news without seeing reports of rising sea levels, shrinking ice sheets, extreme weather, and the acidification of our diverse oceans. When President Elect Donald J. Trump proudly declared that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, educated citizens reacted with notions of incredulity. When his supporters came out in droves defending the “hoax,” we all reacted with shock and horror.

How can so many individuals ignore readily available facts that are unequivocal? Researchers at Utah State University set out to uncover why exactly individuals can throw away decades of scientific evidence. Peter Howe, an assistant professor of human-environment geography at the University’s Department of Environment and Society collaborated with researchers from Boston University, George Washington University, and Oxford University. The researchers based their data from more than 12,000 survey respondents across the nation, as collected by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication from 2008 to 2014.

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“We found that places with more record high temperatures than lows have more residents who believe the planet is warming,” reported Howe. “Conversely, in places with more record low temperatures, more people tend to doubt global warming.”

Northern states were found to have a lower percentage of residents believing in climate change, including North Dakota with only 56% of inhabitants agreeing that global warming is a tangible problem. The states with the highest proportion of surveyed adults agreeing that global warming exists, unsurprisingly, were Hawaii and California with 75% and 70% of yes votes respectively.  States in the middle portion of the United States reported statistics between those high and low percentages with Missouri coming in with 60% of occupants agreeing that climate change exists, North Carolina with 62%, and Colorado with 66%.

This coincides with multiple tweets from the President Elect who commonly cites snow and freezing temperatures in winter as evidence against the science of climate change. People who do not experience warmer temperature frequently are more stubborn to believe that the planet is warming. Individuals rely more on anecdotal and personal experiences when forming opinions, and because weather is experienced on a daily basis, everyone thinks they are an expert. How can global warming be real when I am freezing in North Dakota all the time?

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“One of the greatest challenges to communicating scientific findings about climate change is the cognitive disconnect between local and global events,” added Michael Mann of George Washington University. “It’s easy to assume that what you experience at home must be happening elsewhere.”

So how can entities living in colder areas be convinced of the ravages of our warming climate? The key, according to scientists, is in our phrasing.

It is first important to differentiate the concept of weather, the temperatures of an area over a relatively short period of time, and climate, the average temperature of an area that occurs during a period of 25 or 30 years. Sure it may be freezing and snowing now, but is it less cold than the winters you remember from your childhood?

Secondly, word choice comes into play when discussing the changing phenomena themselves. If one lives in an area far from the equator experiencing record low temperatures, then global warming is a discouraging term. However if propositioned with the phrasing climate change, some naysayers may change their tune. While they may not be able to recollect changing temperatures, they may be cognizant to supplementary environmental changes such as an increase in rainfall, smog, or storm occurrences that are also symptomatic of the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

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Researchers are optimistic that adapting the dialogue when discussing climate change can encourage positive discussion about the fate of our planet.

“Our work highlights some of the challenges of communicating about climate change, and the importance of situating people’s experiences at the local level within the larger global context,” Howe cemented.

In his final presidential address, Barrack Obama echoed the importance of universal acceptance of climate change while also lamenting that action is more important than collective agreement.  “Without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change,” he remarked to an audience of 24 million television viewers. “They’ll be busy dealing with its effects: more environmental disasters, more economic disruptions, waves of climate refugees seeking sanctuary.”

With this study showing that only 63% of Americans believe in climate change due to their inability to look beyond their own location, it is best to heed President Obama’s advice to go forward and combat the insidious effects head on.  There will always be people who say racism doesn’t exist because they live in a white neighborhood, abortion is unnecessary because they live in the Bible belt, and that 9/11 was enacted by the government because they live in their parents’ basements clad in tin foil hats. Climate change is not about convincing people that there is a problem, but about combating the problem while there is still an earth standing.

 

You can read more about Dr. Howe’s research and his maps on climate change opinion at: http://www.peterhowe.org

 

Study Spotlight: It is Even Easier to Make Our Kids Prejudiced Than We Thought

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When cable network A&E announced that they were airing a documentary featuring members of the Klu Klux Klan passing down racist traditions to their children (aptly titled Generation KKK) actors, journalists and respectful members of society were justifiably outraged. Trailers for the now-scrapped production featured Chris Buckley, a Georgia native, teaching his five year old son how to perform white power salutes as well as other children playing dress up in the KKK ceremonial robes.

How could parents be teaching their children such blatant racism? Could children learn racism from watching such programming? Many American households were justifiably concerned about the effects of such programming. Well it turns out that we may be teaching our children in our everyday interactions with other people.

Researchers from the University of Washington have recently published findings that suggest that pre-school aged children can learn bias and prejudice through observing non-verbal cues from adults. Allison Skinner, a postdoctoral researcher at the university, invited 67 children aged four and five years old to take part in the first phase of the study. The children were shown videos in which two different female actors displayed different nonverbal cues when acting with another woman while performing simple activities, such as sharing a toy.

One of the actors displayed visibly positive nonverbal cues such as smiling, leaning inwards, and having a warm tone of voice when sharing the toy with the other woman while the other actor displayed negative nonverbal cues in the forms of scowling, leaning away, and having a cold tone of voice when sharing their toy with the woman. Researchers then asked the children themselves after viewing the video whom they would rather share the toy with: the woman who received the toy from the actor who displayed positive behavioral cues or the woman who received the toy from the actor who displayed negative behavioral cues.

Results of the research suggest that children respond more favorably to people who are the recipient of positive nonverbal signals as 67% of the children answered that they would rather share the toy with the woman who interacted with the positive actor.

“This research shows that kids are learning bias from the non-verbal signals that they’re exposed to, and that this could be a mechanism for the creation of racial bias and other biases that we have in our society,” expressed Skinner who works in the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. “Kids are picking up on more than we think they are, and you don’t have to tell them that one group is better than another group for them to be getting that message from how we act.”

In order to determine whether this bias can lead to more widespread group bias and prejudice, Skinner expanded the study to include a second phase of research. 81 different children aged four and five were recruited to participate in the study that included the same video from the first study. This time, however, the children were introduced to “best friends” of the women who were recipients of the toys as well as the positive and negative nonverbal cues of the actors. These “friends” were described as belonging to the same group as the toy recipients and wore shirts of matching color to the recipients to signify their similarities. The children were again asked which best friend they would rather share the toy with.

Similar to the first study, the results show that children favored the friend of the recipient of positive nonverbal signals over the friend of the recipient of negative nonverbal signals. When taken into account with the results of the first phase of the study, researchers are confident in their implication that children can easily learn bias through nonverbal cues and that this bias can extend to entire groups of people.

Because young children are often not exposed to members of differing races, gender identities, and sexual orientations before attending school they often rely on their parents or other adults to learn how to interact with different groups. Children can easily pick up on nonverbal cues used by adults, no matter how brief, as they are constantly learning about their environments, leading to the development of generalized biases.

“It is quite telling that brief exposure to biased nonverbal signals was able to create a bias among children in the lab,” Skinner articulated. “Kids are picking up on more than we think they are, and you don’t have to tell them that one group is better than another group for them to be getting that message from how we act.”

The results of the study underscores the importance of adults being aware of their interactions with others, especially members of differing social groups, in the presence of their children. It is important for everyone to realize that one does not have to be an outright racist, misogynist, or homophobe in order to pass down bias to children and other impressionable members of society. If we can see little deviations in our own behaviors when interacting with others, even down to how much we smile, our body language, and our tone of speech, and learn to correct them, we will be able to eliminate bias that can be interpreted and copied by children.

This cannot be stressed enough going forward in modern America. Our recent election of a known bigot as well as the outpour of racism, misogyny and outright hatred in the past couple of months is more than enough to relay bias to children who may watch such people on television or be unlucky enough to see such bias in person. In order to make American great again for our children we have to teach them that such bias is wrong, and this starts with eliminating bias in our own behaviors whether they are intended or not. So what do you say? Can we all just get along?