Author Archives: chorascholarette

“Nativist apoplexy” and the case of immigration legislation

In Arizona a law was recently passed allowing police officers to arrest anyone unable to provide documentation of their immigrant status. Supporters of the law argue that illegal immigrants from Mexico are taking American jobs and bringing in dangerous drug cartel violence. Protesters of the bill argue that such a sweeping law will result in law enforcement abuse and a shift of resources and attention away from the real terrorists/drug traffickers. With this legislation, passed on the eve of world-wide May Day rallies in support of immigrant workers, the emotionally and politically charged issue of immigration has escalated to new heights.

As Daniel Bar-Tal explains in a 1990 Journal of Social Issues article, a perceived threat of one group to another can ignite a cycle of delegitimization and moral exclusion stoked by fear and often escalating to further violence. As a rhetorical strategy, delegitimizing a group separates or “others” them and thus serves as grounds for justifying inhumane treatment. We can see many examples of delegitimization and moral exclusion in the case of the Arizona legislation.

Sparked by fears of drug-related violence and the recent murder of an Arizona rancher — who was known to often help immigrants trying to cross the border by giving them water or alerting border patrol so that they could receive medical assistance — the debate surrounding U.S.-Mexico border control has been fueled by many useful myths. As a recent Washington Post article points out, illegal immigration is a complex issue and the main talking points (immigrants take jobs from Americans, illegal immigrants cause crime) are simply not true. But from the standpoint of politics and debate, these myths are very useful because they allow for justifying differential treatment and harsh legislation such as the law that was just passed. Deutsch (1990) further explains the psychological underpinnings of moral exclusion and dehumanization and the social conditions that contribute. Economic depression, for example, can lead to a sense of relative deprivation and an increase in alienation/isolation attitudes. Political instability, authoritarian government, violence, and lack of social bonding can also lead to moral exclusion.

While it is clear that a number of psychological and social forces are merging and a political debate ensuing, there are very real reasons why the current administration may not be able to hold off immigration legislation until the next year. As Bar-Tal explains, “There is little doubt that the distance between delegitimizationof this intensity and behavioral harm is very small.” In other words, legislation such as the one passed in Arizona, may lead to even more violence and less productive border relations. Or, the delegitimization of one group could quickly spread to other groups and become aimed at all immigrants, legal or not.

Jost et al. (2008). Ideology: Its Resurgence in Social, Personality, and Political Psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 126-136 Five Myths About Immigration. The Washington Post.

Jost et al. (2008). Ideology: Its Resurgence in Social, Personality, and Political Psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 126-136 If Only Arizona Were The Real Problem. The New York Times.

Jost et al. (2008). Ideology: Its Resurgence in Social, Personality, and Political Psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 126-136 Bar-Tal, D. (1990). Causes and Consequences of Delegitimization: Models of Conflict and Ethnocentrism. Journal of Social Issues.

Jost et al. (2008). Ideology: Its Resurgence in Social, Personality, and Political Psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 126-136 Deutsch, M. (1990). Psychological Roots of Moral Exclusion. Journal of Social Issues.

Jost et al. (2008). Ideology: Its Resurgence in Social, Personality, and Political Psychology. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3, 126-136 Arizona’s Punishment Doesn’t Fit The Crime: Studies Show Decrease in Arizona Crime Rate Over Time.

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State militias and individual rights: The strength of moral convictions

On the eve of the fifteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing there is talk of developing a state-supported but privately run militia group to protect citizens from “an overreaching federal government” recently epitomized by the passage of healthcare legislation. Talk of a militia group stokes emotional fires on either side of the debate. With recent militia busts in Michigan where plots were underway to attach law enforcement many argue that forming a separate militia group is going too far. Others, harkening to Confederate-era rhetoric of state’s rights, suggest that the individual citizen deserves a guarantee of protection from a federal government that is increasingly interfering in individual lives and state rights.

Indeed, so-called “Patriot” groups are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that since 2008, the number of patriot groups has risen from 149 to 512. Of these groups, 127 are militias. Though these groups are becoming more popular and anti-government rhetoric is on the rise, the concern is less with the formation of the groups than the way in which they may harbor lone extremist individuals seeking a forum for their anger and justification for violent acts. In a recent Christian Science Monitor piece, a member of the Hutaree militia is reported as apparently helping in the bust of the plans against law enforcement. The article argues that militias are acutely aware of the dangers that single rogue members can pose and how these members’ actions can hurt the message of the groups.

Any group risks its own identity — and indeed has to be flexible in this regard — when growing its base, militias would be no different. But impassioned arguments mixed with the right to bear arms could be a bit more concerning. A recent article in the Social and Personality Psychology Compass suggests that when it comes to morality, the psychological stakes are much higher than other attitudes or motivations. “Moral convictions” the author argues, are psychologically distinct from other attitudes and are more likely to compel a person to become politically involved but to also be more accepting of violence as a means to an end. The outcomes of such convictions are simultaneously reassuring and troubling. While organizing to protect rights is an activity that activists across the political spectrum engage in, it raises the question as to how we possibly begin to find a common ground or make progress on issues that register at such personal levels. As the author points out, moral convictions give us the courage to act, but they have also been used to justify heinous crimes. The cases of proliferating militias will force us to consider the nuances of moral convictions and the complicated nature of defending the rights of the individual (or, in this case, states). This reminds me of two of my favorite sayings by my high school government teacher: “I may not agree with your opinions but I’ll defend til death your right to say them” which was often shortly followed by “your rights end where mine begin.” Gray areas are, indeed, quite gray.

Skitka, L. (2010). The psychology of moral conviction. Social and Personality Psychology Compass.

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“Junk” Science? The Psychology of the Soda Tax

Over here in the States the debate is raging about how to pay for healthcare overhaul. And, here in New York, one suggestion to generate revenue is to implement a “soda tax” on sugary beverages. New York governor (for now) David Patterson has proposed a soda tax and a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine backs him up. The study argues that a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages would simultaneously raise revenue and reduce consumption. They compare the tax and its projected impact to a tax on tobacco which has had such results. The beverage industry, however, counters that the two indulgences are not comparable. Both sides have their advocates and talking points, but what can psychology tell us about why soda taxes and other taxes aimed at “junk food” can be effective?

Behavioral economics (BE) is a fascinating field that blends psychology and economics to explain human consumer behavior and suggest ways of encouraging consumers to make better choices. It has gained particular prominence in understanding how individuals approach their retirement savings. Many in the field assume that individuals operate from a stance of “bounded rationality” — meaning we “make biased decisions that sometimes run counter to [our] best interests” (see this article for more information). With regard to the soda tax a basic argument from the BE standpoint would be:

  1. we humans love sugar –>
  2. sugar contributes greatly to obesity –>
  3. we have an obesity epidemic –>
  4. therefore we should reduce consumption of sugar –>
  5. we like sugar too much to make the right choice based purely on health reasons –>
  6. but if you hit us in our pockets we’ll reduce our consumption –>
  7. therefore the overall consumption of sugary drinks will decrease –>
  8. this will open the market up for other types of drinks to be more readily available –>
  9. as these drinks gain more market share our dependence on soda will decrease and we’ll “naturally” change our behavior to consume more healthy alternatives –>
  10. sugar consumption will decrease –>
  11. rates of obesity will likewise decrease –>
  12. healthcare costs associated with obesity will decrease.

You got that? At each little point of that equation there are of course many variables that can correlate, conflate, confound, and moderate the outcomes, but this is the general idea and essentially what was found with tobacco consumption. (If you want to know more about the research behind each step the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University has tons of information here.) A review of relevant articles and their key points is available here. One interesting point that has been brought up that extends beyond the realm of individual behavior is the notion of “shared economic consequences” in which the mass consumption of sugary beverages contributes greatly to the obesity epidemic and we all share the burden of this through elevated healthcare costs. The field of BE and the current legislation efforts show how influencing health-related public policy is more complicated than just providing information on healthy behaviors. It also shows how simple choices (such as drinking soda vs. water) — when scaled to the level of a population — have drastic economic ramifications.

Sidenote, while researching for this article I came across an alternative method of behavioral modification…your own personal 5 lb glob of fat (“My Pet Fat”) that you can place near your junk food to deter you from eating it. Just had to share.

“Soda Tax could shake up industry” on NPR.

Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity section on Soda Tax

Subscribe to RSS for Health Economics for related articles.

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Minority Influence on Capitol Hill

In the late 1960s Serge Moscovici developed a theory of social influence that investigated how minority groups influence majority groups and vice versa. Since then, the theory has been elaborated quite a bit to include in-groups and out-groups and to consider the relevance of the message and the context in which messages are delivered.

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about majorities, minorities, and super-majorities in Washington, DC. With the election of Scott Brown to the Senate the Democrats have lost their filibuster-proof “super-majority” and with the hearings on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (the military’s approach to sexuality) minority messages are being heard in different ways. And with the actions of the Blue Dog group in the Democratic Party and the Tea Party movement in the Republican party there are even in-group minority groups hoping to influence policy. So how are these groups making their voices heard and what can social psychology tell us about their techniques and successes?

For instance, take the case of Joe Lieberman and the Blue Dog group and their influence on the healthcare bill. One way that minorities can influence outcomes is by getting a majority member to deflect (Joe Lieberman). This also often results in other majority members feeling like they, too, can deflect if the majority message is not fully in line with their views (as the Blue Dogs did). Another way that minorities can influence the majority is to have an in-group member side with their position. We have seen this in the case of Admiral Mullen testifying that as a member of the military he feels that it is time to repeal “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” His position as an in-group member of the military helps the minority message, and this was strategically matched on the opposing side with testimony by John McCain, a former military hero (and therefore also an in-group member) arguing an opposing message.

Another example of minority influence occurred when President Obama began building his cabinet and justified appointments that some deemed as too conservative. His argument that this would spur innovation is in line with social psychologist’s findings that the presence of minorities in groups is “related to more team innovation and effectiveness.” Whether this has been the case over the past year is debatable. But there is no doubt that the fledging Tea Party is hoping to use its influence as a vocal in-group minority to push its Republican Party away from the center. How this will play out also remains to be seen. It is important to note, however, that all of these situations involve subjective decisions (ones driven by personal beliefs, emotions, etc.) rather than objective decisions (such as correct answers to a math problem) which further complicate the outcomes.

This application to the political arena is just one application of majority and minority influence theories. As Crano and Seyranian (2009) argue, the theory is also helpful in understanding workgroups, juries, community organizations, classrooms, wars, and international relations.

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Want to keep those New Year’s resolutions?

In just a few days we’ll have a resolution double-whammy. Not just a new year, but a new decade. Seems like a perfect time to be jotting down those resolutions (or publishing them online), right? Making resolutions is one thing…but what about keeping them? What can social psychology tell us that will help increase the odds that this time next year we’ll be proud of ourselves for the changes we’ve made?

In a recent study Lally et al. found that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a new habit to become automatic. While 254 days of gym trips and healthier eating may seem daunting, there’s small comfort in their finding that missing one day did not seem to influence the habit formation process. Weidemann et al. found that action-planning and coping-planning also affect behavior change, particularly in behaviors related to health. Additionally, developing an action plan early on and preparing mentally for the obstacles you may confront as you try to keep your goal (coping-planning, further explained here) can also help you keep your goal.

So,

  • stick with your resolution for the long haul
  • don’t beat yourself up too much if you miss a day
  • develop a plan to help you reach your goal or keep your resolution
  • mentally imagine yourself overcoming any obstacles
  • and, while you’re at it, tell your friends, since that seems to help too!

(2009) Lally et al. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world

(2009) Wiedemann et al. How planning facilitates behaviour change: Additive and interactive effects of a randomized controlled trial

(2005) Sniehotta et al. Action planning and coping planning for long-term lifestyle change: theory and assessment

(2009) Burkeman. This column will change your life, The Guardian

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