Category Archives: Social Influence

Should Pakistan be considered a terrorist state?

By Kevin R. Betts

When the U.S. SEAL team raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan earlier this month, they did so without any approval from Pakistani officials. They covertly flew helicopters into the region, raided the compound in a fierce firefight, and killed bin Laden and several others. The secretive nature of this raid follows from years of American distrust toward Pakistan, an ostensible ally in the fight against terrorism. Recent events have merely added fuel to the fire. Given that the U.S. was able to locate bin Laden from thousands of miles away, Americans are now asking why Pakistani military and intelligence agencies couldn’t do the same within their own country. Bin Laden resided in an elaborate compound only 80 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, and just 800 yards from a major military academy. Was Pakistan truly unaware of bin Laden’s whereabouts, or were they complicit in maintaining his cover?

The nature of this question poses an international Prisoner’s Dilemma. Emerging from game theory, the Prisoner’s Dilemma demonstrates why two parties might not cooperate even if it is in both of their best interests to do so. Generally, such situations require that each party choose between cooperating and defecting with the interests of an adversary. In the present scenario, Pakistan can choose to cooperate with the fight against terrorism or not. Salman Rushdie from Newsweek points out that “Pakistan is alarmed by the rising Indian influence in Afghanistan, and fears that an Afghanistan cleansed of the Taliban would be an Indian client state, thus sandwiching Pakistan between two hostile countries.” However, Pakistan also receives billions of military and intelligence boosting dollars from the United States. Thus, it may be in Pakistan’s interests to ignore certain terrorist activities (defect) while simultaneously appearing bound to U.S. interests (cooperate).

Defecting can grant the most valued outcome in a Prisoner’s Dilemma because it does not require compromise with the adversary’s demands, but this outcome is realized only if the other party chooses to cooperate at the same time. For instance, Pakistan could ignore (or support) terrorist activities while still accepting U.S. funds. If both parties choose to defect, the least valued outcome will result. In this scenario, Pakistan loses U.S. funding and the U.S. loses an ally in the fight against terrorism. Mutual cooperation grants each party a moderately valued but mutually beneficial outcome. Given that the United States has cooperated with Pakistan by providing monetary assistance, it is hoped that they will cooperate as well by assisting in the fight against terrorism.

Given this international Prisoner’s Dilemma, the U.S. must now make judgments about whether Pakistan has cooperated or defected. Many have argued that Pakistan has long been defecting, and that their apparent lack of knowledge about Bin Laden’s whereabouts reveals that this defection continues. Others argue that despite select intelligence failures, Pakistan remains an important ally to the U.S. in a region laden by terrorist threats. Whether the U.S. perceives Pakistan as having cooperated or defected will likely influence their decision about whether they should cooperate or defect themselves. What do you think? Should the U.S. continue to consider Pakistan an ally, or do recent events require a change in perspective?

Read more:

Pakistan: A Terrorist State (Newsweek)

Evans, A.M., & Krueger, J.I. (2009). The psychology (and economics) of trust. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 1003-1017.

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Obama, Osama, and the Cult of Conspiracy

By: Christopher C. Duke, PhD

In the 1950s, a group of psychologists led by Leon Festinger sought to better understand what happens when people are faced with conflicting thoughts and information. To study this, they infiltrated a doomsday cult that believed the world would soon be ending on an exact date and that the cult members would be rescued by an alien spaceship. The psychologists wondered what would happen when the cult members’ belief that the world would end conflicted with the evidence that the world was still here, spinning peacefully around the sun. Would the cult members concede that maybe they were wrong about the whole end-of-the-world-with-aliens thing? The night they expected the world to end, the cult spent the night praying together. When morning came and nothing happened, most of the cult members’ beliefs were strengthened rather than shaken. Instead of believing the world was never in danger, they believed they had prayed so hard they saved the world from destruction through their faith. Why?

In Festinger’s (1956) book When Prophecy Fails about his experience infiltrating the cult, he postulated that when people have conflicting thoughts (called cognitive dissonance), this is uncomfortable, and they seek to resolve the conflict by adjusting one thought, or by ignoring the thoughts. If they have already committed themselves to one thought by investing their time, public statements, and money to it, they are unlikely to abandon it when conflicting evidence arises. Cult members had given up jobs, families, and wealth to follow their beliefs about aliens and the end of the world, making it painful and very difficult to go back on these views. The nature of cognitive dissonance is still debated by researchers, but it is certainly true that once people have committed themselves to certain beliefs, evidence to the contrary may not convince them otherwise. According to Festinger, when people have not made commitments that are difficult to undo, or when they do not have friends who also share the refuted beliefs, they are more likely to be persuaded by evidence.

We can observe this kind of process happening with the conspiracy theorists who believe Barack Obama was born outside the United States. In April of 2011, two large-scale polls revealed that only 1/3 of self-identified Republicans said they believe Obama was born in America. The “birthers” have claimed the president is foreign-born and that they need evidence to be convinced otherwise. At first, the Obama released his official birth certificate (the “short-form” certificate), but the birthers believed this was somehow fraudulent. When announcements of Obama’s birth were found in Hawaiian newspapers from 1961, birthers claimed these were faked in the 1960s as an elaborate ploy. When Obama released the long-form birth certificate this month, conspiracy theorists were quick to decry it as a forgery, though with divergent explanations. For those who have not made strong commitments about the President’s birth, the new long-form certificate may be more persuasive. For those who have irrevocably committed themselves to the belief that the president was not born in America, no amount of evidence will convince them. Each piece of new evidence, no matter how genuine, will be viewed as further “proof” of the conspiracy.

Of course, like in most situations, the conspiracy theories about Obama are not a clean demonstration of one particular theory or effect. The conspiracy theories lift up the curtain on an entire circus of intertwined social psychological phenomena. Although Obama’s role as President suggests he is the leader of the American people, many Americans perceive his leadership as illegitimate in part because Obama does not conform to their perceptions of what the national ingroup “should” be, perhaps because of his ideological beliefs, political party, intellectual grounding, and/or race. Likewise, many liberals perceived President Bush to be an illegitimate leader for similar reasons. With both Obama and Bush, the official leader of the country seemed fundamentally different from what the ingroup “should” be to some segments of the nation, leading to perceived illegitimacy.

In support of this, the beliefs about why Obama is supposedly ineligible for the presidency are ever-shifting and mutating. Prominent birthers have claimed Obama is actually Kenyan, British, Indonesian, or some other nationality, providing a multitude of often mutually exclusive claims. These nationalities are very different from each other in geography and culture. This represents a kind of large-scale outgroup homogeneity bias. For opponents of Obama that see him as “Other” (that is, fundamentally opposed to their perceived ingroup) the nature of that Otherness is almost inconsequential. This can lead to nonsensical claims that Obama is surely Kenyan or Indonesian; atheist or radical Muslim; fascist or communist – anything but a member of the ingroup. As people commit and invest more and more in these claims, it will be increasingly harder for conspiracy theorists to walk back from these beliefs, no matter how absurd the beliefs appear to be. For those who have only flirted with conspiracy theories, it will be much easier to accept the birth certificate as valid.

With the recent death of Osama bin Laden, expect to see the same trend in conspiracy theorists. The “true believers,” who may believe bin Laden was already long dead or is still alive, will claim to need evidence, but any evidence given will be unlikely to dissuade them from beliefs into which they have psychologically invested themselves. Interestingly, for those who do believe Obama killed bin Laden and were only marginally committed to birtherism, bin Laden’s death may dissuade them of their birther beliefs, as bin Laden’s death will bolster Obama’s perceived legitimacy as their national leader.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hehman, E., Gaertner, S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2010). Evaluations of presidential performance: Race, prejudice, and perceptions of Americanism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 430-435.

Inspire magazine: Senseless extremist propaganda or effective recruitment tool?

Inspire Magazine, Spring Edition

By Kevin R. Betts

As millions of Americans tune in to news coverage about the death of Osama Bin Laden this week, a much smaller but equally ambitious group of Westerners are carefully reading and perhaps adopting the views put forth by contributors to the Spring issue of Inspire magazine. Contributors to this controversial and provocative English online magazine hope to inspire Western youth to take violent action against fellow Westerners in defense of Islam. In the most recent issue, contributors celebrate killings of Western service men and women, provide guidance on how to operate a Kalashnikov rifle, and discuss how current protests in the Middle East may be beneficial for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Before we write this magazine off as senseless extremist propaganda, let’s take a moment to seriously consider whether Inspire might actually be effective in at least partially meeting its intended goals.

Like other magazines, Inspire exerts both informational and normative influence over its readers. The information the magazine provides is of considerable value to its readers because it is unique and difficult to find through other means. Without explicit training, most Westerners wouldn’t know how to operate a Kalashnikov rifle. Likewise, few if any Western news contributors express the view that current protests in the Middle East may be beneficial to groups such as al Qaeda. Inspire provides English speaking readers with unique and valuable information that is not available to them through traditional venues. The normative influence that Inspire exerts over its readers is more subtle. The prevailing view among Westerners seems to be that violence enacted in defense of Islam is deplorable. Inspire suggests that this violence is not only legitimate, but desirable. Knowing that they have the support of others, readers that accept this divergent perspective may begin to engage in new behaviors that are consistent with it. These behaviors may range from mere support for extremist goals endorsed by the magazine to actual violence against Westerners. Inspire seems to effectively provide information that interested readers consider valuable, and presents this information in a light that makes it appear normative.

So Inspire may be at least partially effective in meeting its goals. English speaking Westerners—perhaps even some of your friends and neighbors—will read this magazine and make judgments about it. Some of these judgments will be in favor of the views expressed by contributors to the magazine. What do you think? Will Inspire inspire many Westerners to support and/or engage in violent defense of Islam? Or will its message fall on deaf ears along with other senseless extremist propaganda?

Read more:

Bin Laden is dead, Obama says (New York Times)

Chilling tips in al-qaeda magazine (Al Jazeera)

Smith, J.R., & Louis, W.R. (2009). Group norms and the attitude-behavior relationship. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 19-35.

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Confirmation Bias, Satire, and Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert

By: Christopher C. Duke, PhD

Even if you are not a psychologist, you have probably heard of confirmation bias. Whether you have heard of it or not, you have most certainly seen it and engaged in it. Confirmation bias is the very human tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing world views rather than challenges them. Likewise, we tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting our views (Balcetis & Dunning, 2006). We all know people who have strong political views on particular topics. Are they likely to read and watch material that supports their views, or opposes their views? What about ourselves? We tend to think of ourselves as rational and logical judges of the world around us, but this is often not the case. Confirmation bias is well illustrated in the following quote (courtesy of You Are Not So Smart) from Terry Pratchett’s The Truth.

“Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren’t what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don’t want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true.”

Confirmation bias is a long established phenomenon in social psychology, but more recent research applies confirmation bias to satire. Satire is interesting in that it supports one type of argument through making the opposing argument, allowing a huge potential for confirmation bias to influence our interpretation. As a result, satire is often misunderstood, such as in the case of Archie Bunker from All in the Family. Bunker was written as an ignorant and racist character, intended by creator Norman Lear to satirize bigotry and be disliked by the audience. Surprisingly to Lear, a segment of the audience saw Bunker not as satire, but as a role model (Vidmar & Rokeach, 1974).

More recent research has turned its eye to how people interpret The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert, in his own words, plays a parody of certain types of conservative pundits. Prior evidence suggests that some of the people intended to be Colbert’s satirical targets actually believe Colbert supports them, such as when Colbert was invited to host the 2006 White House Press Correspondents Dinner, or when presidential candidate Mike Huckabee thanked Colbert for his endorsement. In the study by LaMarre, Landreville, and Beam (2009) participants provided a range of survey data, including their political orientation and beliefs about The Colbert Report. More liberal participants believed Colbert was liberal and that the show was satirical. More conservative participants believed Colbert was conservative and genuinely believed his “satirical” arguments. Essentially, viewers of liberal and conservative orientations tended to perceive Colbert as supporting whatever views they personally held. Some might interpret these findings as unfavorable towards conservatives. However, everyone can be prone to these types of biases, and believing you are immune may make you more vulnerable. Without a doubt, political orientation is no inoculation against cognitive and social biases.

Here is one tip for overcoming confirmation bias within yourself: When most people do “reality testing” they seek information that confirms their existing views are correct. Instead, try to do the opposite. Try to find evidence that argues against your existing views. It may be uncomfortable, but it can be more likely to lead to information that is accurate rather than just comforting.

Balcetis, E., & Dunning, D. (2006). See what you want to see: Motivational influences on visual perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 612-625.

LaMarre, H. L., Landreville, K. D., & Beam, M. A. (2009). The Irony of satire: Political ideology and the motivation to see what you want to see in The Colbert Report.  International Journal of Press/Politics, 14, 212-231.

Vidmar, N., & Rokeach, M. (1974). Archie Bunker’s bigotry: A Study in selective perception and exposure. Journal of Communication 24, 36–47.

Social support as a psychological stressor, implications for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head at a political rally in January

By Kevin R. Betts

Some of you will remember my post back in January about Jared Loughner, the 22 year old who shot and killed six people and wounded 14 others at a political rally in Arizona. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was seriously wounded in the shooting by a shot to the head. The story of Giffords has since received extensive attention by major news agencies. Colleagues, political supporters, and perhaps most of all, her husband, have eagerly awaited Gifford’s recovery and hoped for her successful future in politics.  The impact of social support on recovery from such hardships has been studied extensively by social and health psychologists. What effect, if any, might social support have on recovery efforts like those of Giffords?

The intuitive assumption of many laypersons—that social support aids recovery—is not completely accurate. To be sure, recipients of social support often gain strength from the social support they receive during hardships. Yet, social support can also hinder recovery efforts if administered inappropriately. Researchers Rafaeli and Gleason (2009) find that social support can undermine the recipient’s sense of self-efficacy, focus the recipient’s attention on the stressor, and make the recipient feel indebted to the provider. The combination of these factors and others may lead recipients to perceive social support as an additional stressor. Rafaeli and Gleason (2009) emphasize that social support can promote positive health outcomes, but only when the right type of support is provided at the right time. For instance, reassuring a recipient that she is capable of overcoming some stressor may be stressful if she is already confident in her abilities (because it could undermine her sense of self-efficacy). It might make more sense in such cases to speak of the positive outcomes that will result once the stressor is “inevitably” overcome.

Findings like these may be especially relevant to Giffords’ recovery efforts. Supporters of Giffords would like to see her make a complete recovery that allows her to continue work in public office. At a fundraiser in March, supporters raised $125,000 in pledges to sustain her 2012 reelection campaign. The support that Giffords has received from supporters is profound. Yet, expectations set for her may be unrealistic. Neurosurgeon Dr. Dong Kim asks, “If somebody has a severe brain injury, are they ever going to be like they were before? The answer is no.” Given limits to how fast one can recover from such a serious injury, Giffords may perceive these support behaviors as stress inducing. Giffords still has a lot of recovering left to do before returning to office can even be considered. If we wish to see Giffords make the fastest recovery possible, it may be wise for the public to set our expectations aside for a while and just let her recover.

Read more:

What’s really going on with Gabby Giffords? (Newsweek)

Rafaeli, E., & Gleason, M.E.J. (2009). Skilled support within intimate relationships.  Journal of Family Theory and Review, 1, 20-37.

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Federal impasse averted, but fundamental partisan differences divide the U.S. government

U.S. Capital Building, Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Ed Brown.

The Federal budget was finally passed by the U.S. Congress at the last possible hour this past Friday before a complete shut-down of the government, which would have disrupted services in the U.S. and abroad.  Debates between the Republicans and Democrats have become more intractable and heated recently regarding spending and deficit reduction.

In research conducted by Sheldon and Nichols (2009), participants who identified as Republican or Democrat differed on the importance they assigned to extrinsic and intrinsic values.  Republicans were higher on extrinsic values (money, popularity, and image) than Democrats, while Democrats were higher on intrinsic values (intimacy, helping, and growth).  In other research, when threat from the outgroup party was present (versus not present), people who identify as political conservatives had high Social Dominance Orientation scores (endorsement of social hierarchy).  However, self-identifying liberals in the threat condition had low SDO scores (Morrison & Ybarra, 2009).

It might be difficult to generalize research on undergraduate samples to political representatives in Washington, D.C., but these findings highlight potential differences in values and threat responses between the political parties making important decisions for the future of the United States.  Nevertheless, these differences should not prevent necessary cooperation and compromise.

To read more:

Morrison, K. R. and Ybarra, O. (2009). Symbolic threat and social dominance among liberals and conservatives: SDO reflects conformity to political values. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39, 1039 – 1052.

Sheldon, K. M. and Nichols, C. P. (2009). Comparing Democrats and Republicans on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Values. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 39, 589 – 623.

Federal Budget (2011) – Government Showdown Averted

 

Obama to lay out plan this week to cut deficit