Monthly Archives: May 2010

Heath Ledger lives! And not just in my personal bedroom shrine.

This past weekend, the movie “The Patriot” was on TNT and although I’ve definitely seen it a good eighteen times, I can never seem to get enough of it. Heath Ledger as the dashing, young, patriotic soldier who enlists in the American Revolution despite his father’s sincerest efforts to discourage him – my heart literally skips a beat every time he comes onto the scene. I realize that I’m in my solid mid-twenties and celebrity crushes have usually been a fleeting thing of my teenage past. But there’s always been something about Heath Ledger that I just can’t shake. Well, him and John F. Kennedy, Jr. Come to think of it though, I only became really wrapped up in John-John once his plane crashed back in 1999 – I remember sitting in front of the television uninterrupted for a week, waiting for his body to be recovered. I was devastated when my mother told me to let it go. And then when Heath Ledger died – as a first-year teaching assistant in graduate school, I definitely used my newfound discretion to allocate an entire class period to have my students reflect on their favorite Heath Ledger moments in film.

What is it about celebrities?  And perhaps more interestingly, what is it about dead celebrities? According to Pelin Kesebir and Chi-yue Chiu, both cultural psychologists affiliated with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, our fascination with celebrities is really just an attempt to relieve ourselves of the death anxiety we experience as the only living creatures to be conscious of our own mortality. As suggested by the large body of research supporting Terror Management Theory, to take our minds off of the chronic and debilitating terror of knowing we are eventually going to die, we cling to cultural icons (i.e., celebrities) and worldviews that assure us that we stand for something larger than just our physical selves and that once we do die, we will have achieved symbolic immortality from having been affiliated with these great contemporaries and ideas. In short, if you’re concerned with leaving your mark on the world, and someone famous embodies your value system, you peg your legacy on his or her legacy. As Kesebir puts it, “After being reminded of their mortality… people think that famous people will be remembered for a longer time in the future, attesting to people’s desire to see these celebrities as symbolically immortal. And the more celebrities represent cultural values, the more is the desire to see them as everlasting… In another study, I showed that people think that if they board the same plane as a famous person, the plane is less likely to crash, to the extent that the famous person on board represents cultural values.”

And what happens when these celebrities actually die before we do? Do we lose our buffer against the existential terror they have for so long kept in check for us? According to Kesebir, “[Mourners] will experience the shock of seeing the annihilation of something they inwardly deemed to be imperishable (just like a god). In a way, they have lost one of their bulwarks against existential anxiety, and they are in a vulnerable state now. With time, though, they will come to accept [the] literal death and derive a similar sense of stamina from [the celebrity’s] symbolic immortality.”

The Science of Dead Celebrities

Culture and Terror Management: What is “Culture” in Cultural Psychology and Terror Management Theory?

“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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Is love blind? Positive illusions in romantic relationships

You might have the similar experience. One of your friends Ann comes to you and starts talking about her new boyfriend Mark. He is not only charming, but also extremely smart, humorous, thoughtful. You think Ann is the luckiest girl in the world and cannot wait to see this amazing guy. Finally, when you meet this him, this perfect guy seems to have been turned into a bald, short and boring man. You run away from him and doubt that there is something wrong with Ann’s eyes. However, the same story happens to Mary, Ken, Chris, and Benny. Eventually, one day your friends ask you, what the hell do you see in that guy!? You wonder, is love really blind?

There has been a substantial amount research devoted to investigating this interesting question. Research showed that during their romantic relationship, partners frequently attempt to sustain a sense of felt security by weaving an elaborate story (or fiction) that both embellishes a partner’s virtues and minimizes his or her faults. For instance, several research found that individuals often rate their partner overly positive on characteristics such as “kind” and “intelligent,” a phenomenon that has been called positive illusions. Barelds and Dijkstra (2009) examined the existence of positive illusions about a partner’s physical attractiveness and its relations to relationship quality. They found that individuals rated their partner as more attractive than their partner rated him or herself, and such positive illusion about partner’s physical attractiveness was associated with high relationship quality. Researchers interpreted that feeling that one partner is very attractive will therefore enhance one’s satisfaction with one’s relationship. Partners may feel they are lucky to have such an attractive partner. So is love blind?  Perhaps not blind, but certainly magic.

People in Love Are Blind to Pretty Faces

Barelds & Dijkstra (2009).Positive illusions about a partner’s physical attractiveness and relationship quality. Personal Relationships,16,263 – 283.

“Me a bigot? No way, I hate them!”

After being caught calling one of his own Labour supporters a bigot when he thought he was off microphone, Gordon Brown has been apologizing and recanting his statement at every opportunity. His reference to Gillian Duffy as “a sort of bigoted woman” came after her comments about Eastern European immigration, something many in Britain feel is a growing problem. Of course, the news has focused on the aftermath of Brown’s gaffe and his attempts to apologize to Duffy. Meanwhile, Duffy seemed completely shocked that anything she said would have implied she was prejudiced. What the news has not focused on is whether or not she really is a bigot. Few people would agree they were in fact a bigot, despite their prejudicial views, because nobody ever thinks they are one.

Past research (using implicit measures and physiological responses) has shown that most people are prejudiced to some extent. But, most people, even those with extreme prejudices, deny such attitudes. According to recent research highlighted in the Journal of Applied Psychology, this may be because exposure to representations of prejudice in culture promotes the self-belief that individuals are not prejudiced. In a series of experiments, the authors exposed American participants to bigot stereotypes (through either priming or more explicit media representations) and found that those participants exposed rated themselves as less prejudiced than those who were not exposed beforehand. The authors suggest that this is due to cues of prejudice providing targets for downward social comparison. So, if exposure to bigot cues can lead people to believe they are less bigoted, then perhaps all the campaign focus on anti-immigration and the recent surge in support for racist parties like the BNP will lead other British people to think they are less bigoted than they actually are.

Read more: But I’m No Bigot: How Prejudiced White Americans Maintain Unprejudiced Self-Image

Read more: The Nature of Contemporary Prejudice: Insights from Aversive Racism