Monthly Archives: January 2011

“Why didn’t anyone stop this? It seems so obvious!”

By, Adam K. Fetterman
After an act of extreme violence, it is normal for people to want answers. The shooting of Arizona officials a couple weeks ago is no exception. Briefly, a disturbed man opened fire on public officials killing six and leaving U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona in critical condition. Many accusations were thrown about to explain the man’s extreme behavior. For example, mental health was pointed out in an article on TheHill.com. While there is all this blame thrown around, many question why no one had noticed his erratic behavior and stopped it. According to The Hill article, polls have been conducted and many blame the mental health system for failing to identify dangerous individuals. It also notes that many people have the same feelings regarding other shootings. It seems so obvious to those around these shooters that these people are unstable. Unfortunately, they only notice after the fact.

Part of the reason that people only notice mentally unstable shooters after fact is because of a psychological effect called “Hindsight Bias” (Fischhoff, 1975). Hindsight bias occurs when one misjudges the predictability of an event after the event occurs. According to Campbell and Tesser (1983), one motive for this bias is that people have a need for predictability. Particularly in the case of these shooters, we have a strong motivation to believe that these events are predictable, and not random. Therefore, it is easy to blame an institution or individuals for not recognizing the instability beforehand and “do something” to prevent these atrocities, because we have all the evidence after the fact. With the benefit of hindsight, we believe the events are quite a bit more predictive than they really are, because it makes us feel safe. However, in reality, these events are fairly random. With this in mind, perhaps we should hold back on finding out who is to blame for not stopping these things from happening.

Poll: Mental health linked to Arizona shooting. By Jason Millman from TheHill.com

Campbell, J. D. and Tesser, A. (1983), Motivational interpretations of hindsight bias: An individual difference analysis. Journal of Personality, 51: 605–620.

Read all of Adam K. Fetterman’s posts here.

On the effectiveness of intergroup apologies, part II

Gov. Robert Bentley apologized for discriminatory remarks on Wednesday

By Kevin R. Betts

In late November, I wrote about the effectiveness of apologies for reducing intergroup conflict. Based on research by Blatz and Philpot (2010), I suggested that when certain conditions are met, the power of a simple public apology for improving intergroup attitudes, restoring trust, and promoting forgiveness should not be underestimated. Examining reactions to a recent public apology made by Alabama Governor Robert Bentley to non-Christians in the state provides for a nice test of the ideas presented in this prior post.

Let’s start with a little background for those unacquainted with this story. Shortly after being sworn into office last Monday, Alabama’s governor met with supporters at a local church where he said bluntly, “Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.” Because not everyone residing in Alabama is Christian, many people wondered whether the new governor would treat all citizens fairly. Rabbi Jonathan Miller of Temple Emanu-El in Birmingham was among the many people who felt disenfranchised by Gov. Bentley’s words. In a letter to Gov. Bentley, Rabbi Miller wrote, “Our great nation, by law and tradition, provides us with religious freedom. And even though we do not believe exactly alike, we ought to see each other with brotherly affection, and as equals in conscience and human worth.” For a time following Gov. Bentley’s words, Rabbi Miller and other non-Christians were enraged.

Two days later, Gov. Bentley apologized to both community leaders and the public. He organized meetings on Wednesday with concerned community leaders (including Rabbi Miller) and the press. Among his words to the press, Gov. Bentley said, “The terminology that I used I believe seemed to disenfranchise other religions and it certainly was not meant to do that. And what I would like to do is apologize. Anyone who heard those words and felt disenfranchised I want to say that I’m sorry. If you’re not a person who can say that you’re sorry than you’re not a very good leader.”

What was the result of Gov. Bentley’s apology to non-Christians in the state? As predicted in my prior post, intergroup attitudes improved, intergroup trust was partially restored, and forgiveness was attained. Consider the words of Rabbi Miller about Gov. Bentley following the meeting. “He’s looking to fix the thing. He was apologetic. He’s clearly looking to reconcile himself. All of us have put out words we wish we could take back.” In later comments, Rabbi Miller went on to say about Gov. Bentley, “We certainly expect from his words and deeds today that he will not be a governor who will divide us over religious issues.”

Relative to other conflict resolution strategies that I have written about, intergroup apologies are simple and easy to implement. This does not mean that they are always effective; under many conditions, they will not be. Yet, the result of Gov. Bentley’s apology to non-Christians in Alabama points out that their value should not be underestimated. In certain cases, a simple apology may effectively resolve serious conflict between groups.

Read more:

Blatz, C.W., & Philpot, C. (2010). On the outcomes of intergroup apologies. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4, 995-1007.

Alabama’s new governor apologies for Christian comments, Rabbi accepts (CNN)

Alabama governor touches off controversy with Christian comments (CNN)

View other posts by Kevin R. Betts

Partitioning Sudan: Failure or Successful Resolution?

Voter registration line in Abyei

People lined up to register to vote in Abyei, Sudan, 18 November 2009. Photo courtesy of U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan. The views expressed here have not been endorsed by the Special Envoy.

A vote for independence from the north is the expected outcome of the referendum in southern Sudan, which was held from 9-15 January 2011. Sudan’s fractured history goes much deeper than the more recent killing and displacement in the Darfur region, including two civil wars between the more developed Islamic north and the impoverished tribal south. The latter conflict was mainly over the religious autonomy of the south and division of oil revenues. (The majority of Sudan’s oilfields are in the south while refineries and pipelines to the seaports are in the north). The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement established tentative peace and mandated a referendum for independence.

Some consider the partitioning of a country to be a failure of diplomacy and intergroup contact.  For southern Sudan gaining independence, although fraught with many new challenges, might be an opportunity to gain equal status with the north. According to Gordan Allport’s intergroup contact hypothesis, equal status is one of the four necessary preconditions for decreasing intergroup prejudice and anxiety. Commentary on Allport’s work (Esses, Jackson, Dovidio, & Hodson, 2008) claims that reducing competition for tangible resources and attenuating symbolic conflict over issues such as identity and religion need to happen simultaneously. In fact, decreasing tension over sovereignty and religious freedom might create more political space to negotiate sharing oil revenues.

On the Ground: Answering Your Sudan Questions, Take 1

Esses, V. M., Jackson, L. M., Dovidio, J. F. and Hodson, G. (2008). Instrumental relations among groups: Group competition, conflict, and prejudice. In J. F. Dovidio, P. Glick and L. A. Rudman (Eds.), On the nature of prejudice: Fifty years after Allport (pp. 227 – 243). Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK.

Priming racist symbol promotes racist voting

By: Erica Zaiser

Since the media is already beginning to review the last US presidential election in order to predict the next one, I thought it would be a good time to discuss a recent article in Political Psychology about the 2008 election. In their pre-election study, the researchers found that priming images of the confederate flag decreased white voters willingness to vote for Obama. Even when assessing a hypothetical black candidate, white participants evaluated the candidate more negatively after being exposed to the confederate flag. However, this wasn’t just an increase in negative attitudes in general, because there was no effect on attitudes towards white candidates.

This isn’t particularly surprising when you think about it. As the authors explain, by priming the confederate flag,  negative attitudes towards blacks are more accessible. However, these studies are good examples of how something somewhat obvious for psychologists in the lab is still striking when you think about the ramifications it can have in the “real world”. Especially when you realize that the results were controlling for political orientation and personal racial attitudes. So it wasn’t that people who already held strong racist views were reminded of their own beliefs; instead, people exposed to the image accessed a set of racist cultural beliefs that the flag represents, regardless of their personal attitudes towards race or politics.

I wanted to write about this because it’s interesting and important to be aware of. I am also worried that psychologists shouldn’t draw too much attention to this effect or we are going to see this type of priming used (or used more) on the campaign trail.

Read more: Exposure to confederate flag affects willingness to vote for Obama

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Did intergroup threat act as a precursor to the Arizona shooting rampage?

Jared Loughner's Pima County booking photo

By Kevin R. Betts

Twenty-two year old Jared Loughner stood in a Phoenix courtroom yesterday faced with federal murder and attempted murder charges. Although much is still being learned about why he targeted Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in a shooting rampage on Saturday, his actions appear politically motivated. At a past political event, he asked Giffords questions along the lines of “What do you think of these people who are working for the government and they can’t describe what they do?” and “What is government if words have no meaning?” Loughner’s political leanings are unclear, but friends say he expressed dissatisfaction with Giffords and her views. Could perceptions of threat posed by the views of Giffords and her constituents have contributed to Loughner’s violent rampage?

The essence of intergroup threat theory is an expectation that future intergroup relations will be harmful in some way to the ingroup (Stephan, Renfro, & Davis, 2008). These threats may be realistic in that they threaten political power, economic power, or well-being, or they may be symbolic in that they threaten values, beliefs, or a worldview.  It is possible that Loughner perceived the views of Giffords and her constituents as threatening in one or more of these ways. He expressed dissatisfaction to his friends and others regarding her views and ability to lead. More importantly, affected individuals react to threats both psychologically and behaviorally. Psychological reactions may include fear, anger, resentment, or helplessness. Behavioral reactions may be avoidant or aggressive in nature. Although avoidant reactions are most common, aggressive reactions become more likely with negative previous interactions and a strong ingroup identity. Loughner’s friends describe contentious interactions between him and Giffords at past political events, but his association with opposing groups is unclear. Nonetheless, his actions were clearly aggressive.

It is probably too soon to draw firm conclusions about whether intergroup threat acted as a precursor to the Arizona shooting rampage. More information about Loughner’s political leanings,  formal or informal associations with any political groups, history of prior contact with Giffords and her constituents, and perceptions of threat posed by the views of  Giffords and her constituents are all needed. Yet, intergroup threat is worth considering as a possible precursor to the incident as the case unfolds.

Read more:

Shooting suspect’s nihilism rose with isolation (AP)

Stephan, W.G., Renfro, C.L., & Davis, M.D. (2008). The role of threat in intergroup relations. In U. Wagner, L.R. Tropp, G. Finchilescu, & C. Tredoux (Eds.), Improving intergroup relations (pp. 55-72). Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

View other posts by Kevin R. Betts