Author Archives: Kevin Betts

What is it about groups that promotes aggression?

Protesters urge Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to leave office

By Kevin R. Betts

Looking at recent news events, it seems apparent that acts of aggression often involve groups. For the past two weeks in Egypt, thousands of anti-government protesters have maintained control over Tahrir Square demanding that their president step down from power. On a flight this weekend from the Canary Islands to Belgium, dozens of passengers became so enraged about oversized baggage fees that law enforcement officers were called to the scene. In Ohio, two men shot into a Youngstown State University fraternity house this weekend, later claiming that they were angry about being ejected from a party. These recent events suggest that group contexts might promote aggressive behavior. But what exactly is it about groups that promotes aggression?

Meier, Hinsz, and Heimerdinger (2007) present a framework for explaining aggression involving groups. They suggest that given a competitive or aggressive context, groups can be expected to react more aggressively than similarly treated individuals. This is because group contexts contain situational elements that stimulate their members to act aggressively. For example, hostile cognitions and negative affect are known to promote aggression among individuals. It is probably easy for most of us to imagine instances in our own lives where provocation (hostile cognitions) or a bad mood (negative affect) led us to act aggressively. Meier et al. (2007) suggest that in group contexts, both hostile cognitions and negative affect are more likely to emerge and therefore promote aggressive reactions. Disinhibition, or the loss of one’s individuality, self-awareness, or self-evaluation apprehension, is another mechanism that might promote aggression in groups. There are many situational factors that promote disinhibition, and thus aggression, among individuals (e.g., alcohol). Meier et al. (2007) suggest that group contexts on their own may promote disinhibition among their members, which might release social constraints against aggression. The researchers identify other situational variables that might influence aggression in groups as well, including group accentuation, arousal, and individual differences.

The framework presented by Meier et al. (2007) supports the notion that groups are more likely than individuals to react aggressively given a competitive or aggressive context, and identifies situational elements that promote aggression among groups. Readers may be able to detect the influence of these situational elements in their own lives. Hostile cognitions, negative affect, disinhibition, and other factors likely influenced the protestors in Egypt, the passengers angry over baggage fees, and the shooters at Youngstown State University. Can you think of a time when these factors influenced you or someone you know to act aggressively in a group?

Read more:

Egypt’s new Cabinet to meet for first time as protests persist (CNN)

Passenger’s ‘mutiny’ over Ryanair bag fee (CNN)

Party ejection led to Ohio frat house shooting, police say (CNN)

Meier, B.P., Hinsz, V.B., & Heimerdinger, S.R. (2007). A framework for explaining aggression involving groups. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1, 298-312.

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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)

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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.

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Treat yourself to a health screening this New Year

By Kevin R. Betts

On the morning of December 12th, my aunt suffered a heart attack that nearly took her life. The attack was so severe that she was rushed to the hospital in an ambulance and escorted directly to an operating room. Following the incident, the surgeon informed our family that the main artery to her heart was one hundred percent blocked and expressed surprise that the attack was not fatal. As you might guess, this incident was incredibly traumatic for both my aunt and our family. Once things settled and we knew that my aunt would be okay, many members of my family were asking about prevention. What could have been done to prevent my aunt’s heart attack? What can be done in the future to prevent another heart attack in our family? Health screenings available at local clinics may provide useful information about personal health risks and what can be done to combat them.

Practitioners have long urged the public to obtain health screenings designed to detect behavioral and genetic risk factors for disease, as well as the early presence of disease. But the utility of these screenings is not controversial. Rather, people pass on health screenings for other reasons. One reason is distress associated with the procedures or potential results of the screenings. Recognizing this problem, Bennett (2009) examined causes of health screening related distress and simple techniques for overcoming this distress. For example, many people hold misperceptions about the procedures associated with health screenings that arouse anxiety. Health organizations could correct these misperceptions and thus alleviate this anxiety by providing the public with specific information about the procedures involved through websites or pamphlets. The public could then test their perceptions about these procedures by comparing them to this  information. Waiting for results from a health screening may also arouse significant anxiety. Some people may spend this time imagining catastrophic scenarios that could potentially follow undesired results from the screening. To alleviate this anxiety, Bennett (2009) recommends implementing coping strategies that facilitate emotional regulation. Distracting oneself with unrelated thoughts and activities may be one way to regulate negative emotions.

The thought of losing a close family member or friend to a heart attack or other preventable health problem is frightening. Health screenings may provide information about health risks and what can be done to combat them. If you or someone you know is considering obtaining a health screening, good for you! And if you are held back by anxiety associated with the procedures or potential results of the screening, remember that skipping the doctor does not reduce your risk. Try one of the techniques for overcoming this anxiety recommended by Bennett (2009) and start your New Year with a clean bill of health.

Read more:

Bennett, P. (2009). How can we reduce the distress associated with health screening? From psychological theory to clinical practice. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 3, 939-948.

Matters of the Heart (CNN)

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Cyber attacks: A unique threat to national security

By Kevin R. Betts

Political discussions about national security most commonly focus on threats of violence, such as those posed by nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, or suicide attacks initiated by terrorist organizations abroad. But not all threats to national security are violent. Michael Chertoff, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, recently addressed the cybersecurity challenge faced by modern counterterrorism organizations. In contrast to traditional violent attacks, cyber attacks may be capable of affecting a wider region by shutting down essential government services, stopping business operations, jeapordizing the security of financial institutions, and disrupting electronic communications (Chertoff, 2008). Cyber attacks are unique in that they threaten the social infrastructure of target regions.

Although major cyber attacks are uncommon today, they are increasing in frequency, sophistication, and scope. For example, Russia launched a denial of service attack against Georgia in early 2008 that restricted the access of many Georgians to information about what was occurring in their country. Additionally, websites associated with the Georgian government were defaced and government services were curtailed. Russia is not the only country capable of such attacks; the U.S. intelligence community contends that multiple nations currently possess the technical capability to target and disrupt the social infrastructure of Western nations. Nor is Russia the only nation willing to launch a cyber attack against an enemy; terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah have all expressed desire to initiate these types of attacks against Western nations. Although we can only speculate about the future, these types of attacks will likely continue to increase.

What can be done to protect against this unique threat to our social infrastructure? Chertoff (2008) identifies several actions that are currently being taken by the U.S. government, as well as actions that citizens can take to protect themselves. According to Chertoff, the responsibility of the government in preventing cyber attacks is to assess vulnerabilities in the government’s civilian domains, reduce points of access to the Internet that allow for inappropriate intrusion, employ tools that reduce the possibility of an attack, and consistently monitor potential threats. For citizens, Chertoff recommends activating antivirus software on personal computers, changing passwords frequently, and avoiding suspicious emails and websites. Fulfilling these government and citizen responsibilities should reduce unnecessary vulnerabilities.

Read more:

Chertoff, M. (2008). The cybersecurity challenge. Regulation and Governance, 2, 480-484.

Estonia, Google Help “Cyberlocked” Georgia (Wired)

Talks on Iran’s Nuclear Program Produce…More Talks (TIME)

North Korea’s Nuclear Program (New York Times)

Life among U.S. enemies: Embedded with the Taliban (CNN)

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On the effectiveness of intergroup apologies

By Kevin R. Betts

A common theme of my previous posts concerns intergroup conflict and its resolution. Some conflicts I have examined include clashes in Bangkok between anti-government protestors and the Thai government, relations between the LAPD and bicycle commuters, immigrant relations in Arizona, conflict on the Korean peninsula, and reciprocal determinants of terrorist and counterterrorist actions. The nature of these conflicts is complex, and accordingly, the interventions I proposed have sometimes been complex as well. But a recent article by Blatz and Philpot (2010) suggests that some of these conflicts may not require complex solutions. Rather, a simple public apology may sometimes be all that is needed to restore peace.

Blatz and Philpot (2010) suggest that intergroup apologies can improve intergroup attitudes, restore trust, and promote forgiveness. Additionally, they identify nine moderators (intentionality, time since harm, severity, privity, costliness, time since apology, trust, power, and identification) and four mediators (remorse, sincerity, empathy, and assigning responsibility) that influence apology-outcome relationships. Although it is beyond the scope of this brief post to examine all of these factors, one can imagine how each might relate to the conflicts discussed above. Take whether or not the perpetrators intended to harm the victim (intentionality) as an example. This past summer, I wrote about an incident where an LAPD officer was filmed kicking a bicycle commuter during the monthly mass bicycling event Critical Mass. As an organization, the LAPD reacted to this incident by condemning the actions of the officer and expressing their support of lawful bicycle commuting. Framing this incident as unreflective of the LAPD as an organization (unintentional) may have aided their attempt to restore relations with bicycle commuters in the city. In contrast, intergroup apologies should be less effective when transgressions are clearly intentional. For example, the North Korean government openly takes credit for their recent attack on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. Although an official apology is certainly warranted for this attack, it is unlikely to be effective in achieving the immediate forgiveness of South Koreans.

Clearly, not all intergroup conflicts can be resolved with an apology. What should be taken from this research is 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.

Read more

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

Destruction on island at center of Korean barrage (CNN)

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Are you aware of your partner’s secret STD?

By Kevin R. Betts

“Don’t wait until you’re naked in bed with someone to tell them you have an STD.” This is legitimate advice from therapist and relationship expert Rachel A. Sussman, as quoted in a recent CNN health article. But as an uninfected individual, is this unfortunate scenario something that you need to be concerned about? Certainly an individual that you willingly become intimate with wouldn’t put you at risk without at least informing you. Right? Not necessarily.

Take HIV infection as an example. Fisher, Kohut, and Fisher (2009) point out that most research in the social sciences aimed at preventing the spread of HIV targets uninfected individuals. Meanwhile, research aimed at preventing high risk behaviors among infected individuals remains scarce. Yet it is infected individuals that are the greatest threat to the spread of this disease. Fisher et al. (2009) argue that this inappropriate focus on the behaviors of uninfected individuals resulted from the well-intentioned efforts of researchers to avoid strengthening existing patterns of prejudice, fear of contagion, and blaming the victim. Although these intentions are admirable, they nonetheless have neglected to consider an important link in the chain of infection. Many infected individuals remain willing to hide information about HIV and other contagious diseases from their partner(s). Fisher et al. (2009) urge social scientists to refocus their efforts on preventing high risk behaviors among infected individuals.

What should uninfected individuals take from this example? It is important that you speak with your partner(s) about sexually transmitted diseases. Although this discussion may be uncomfortable, it may also save you extensive physical and psychological distress down the line.

Read more:

8 tips for telling your partner a health secret (CNN)

Fisher, W.A., Kohut, T., & Fisher, J. (2009). AIDS exceptionalism: On the social psychology of HIV prevention research. Social Issues and Policy Review, 3, 45-77.

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Targeting terrorist capability versus intent

By Kevin R. Betts

Late last week, two Chicago-addressed packages containing hidden bombs were shipped out of Yemen by an unknown source. The packages successfully progressed through multiple countries and aircraft before a tip from the Saudi Arabian intelligence service led officials in Britain and Dubai to seize the packages. Although ultimately unsuccessful, this attempted attack lends credibility to the capability and intent of terrorist outfits who threaten acts of violence.

Much has been done to reduce the capabilities of terrorists seeking to engage in acts of violence. Impressive new technologies and training programs designed for this purpose emerge on a regular basis. However, the effectiveness of these measures is limited by the ability of terrorist outfits to adapt to and overcome them. The successful progression of the abovementioned bombs through multiple countries and aircraft indicate continued capability among terrorist organizations despite  advances in security. From this perspective, intent becomes very important because whether or not terrorist outfits are capable of following through with threats of violence becomes irrelevant once intent to engage in such acts is eliminated. In other words, influencing the intentions of terrorists may have more long-term effects.

How can we convince terrorist outfits to cease their violent attacks? Kruglanski and Fishman (2009) identify numerous strategies that target intent, many of which have already been implemented in deradicalization programs around the world. For example, activists in Yemen have established the Committee for Dialogue, whereby Muslim scholars and suspected members of al-Qaeda engage in religious dialogue designed to address detainees’ apparent misinterpretations of the Q’uran. Although the recipients of these programs remain capable of initiating acts of violence, many of them cease these acts as their intention dissolves. Research in the behavioral sciences provides a multitude of potential techniques for influencing such intentions.

Ultimately, both capability and intent must be targeted as they dually contribute to terrorist threat. Once threats have materialized, security measures that prevent their realization are imperative. Yet, to prevent terrorist attacks in a long-term sense, a focus on intent is essential.

Read more:

Bomb plot shows key role played by intelligence (NYTimes)

Kruglanski, A.W., & Fishman, S. (2009). Psychological factors in terrorism and countereterrorism: Individual, group, and organizational levels of analysis. Social Issues and Policy Review, 3, 1-44.

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Glass ceiling or labyrinth? Reexamining the gender gap at the top

By Kevin R. Betts

I was recently asked to give a talk in an organizational psychology course about the gender gap in leadership positions. In determining the approach I would take for this talk, I asked several colleagues for their thoughts on the issue. The near immediate response from many of them was stated directly, “The glass ceiling!” Ostensibly, an invisible barrier referred to as a glass ceiling prevents women from securing positions of power. I imagine that this metaphor resonates with many readers as well. Ever since the Wall Street Journal’s Carol Hymowitz and Timothy Schellhardt coined this term in 1986, perceptions of a glass ceiling have been central to the public’s understanding of gender inequality in the workplace. But how accurate is this metaphor today?

Emerging evidence now suggests that the glass ceiling metaphor inadequately depicts the experiences of women in the workforce (Eagly & Carli, 2007). For example, the glass ceiling metaphor implies the presence of an impenetrable barrier to top leadership positions. Today, it is clear that this barrier is no longer impenetrable. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi serve as examples of women at the top (Hoyt, 2010). Additionally, the glass ceiling metaphor leaves challenges faced by women at lower- and midlevel positions unaccounted for. Women do not progress through the ranks unimpeded before reaching these top positions. Rather, they face a series of challenges and problems along the way. Considering these limitations, Eagly and Carli (2007) have proposed that the challenges faced by women in the workforce can be better understood through the metaphor of a labyrinth. Consistent with traditional uses of the term, women aspiring to attain top leadership positions must navigate routes that are full of twists and turns. Some problems encountered within the labyrinth include prejudice, resistance to women’s leadership, issues of leadership style, demands of family life, and underinvestment in social capital. Although certainly more complex, the metaphor of a labyrinth seems to better depict challenges faced by working women today.

One can also better understand how to address the leadership gender gap using the metaphor of a labyrinth. If resistance toward women’s leadership is a primary obstacle, then interventions should target attitudes of those who are resistant to women’s leadership. If demands of family life are deemed problematic, then interventions might target the nature of relationships at home. As obstacles are identified and overcome, the leadership gender gap can be expected to shrink at a faster and faster rate.

Read more:

Where is the female Steve Jobs? (New York Times)

Glass ceiling not the obstacle it was (Yuma Sun)

Eagly, A.H., & Carli, L.L. (2007). Through the Labyrinth: The Truth about How Women become Leaders. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Hoyt, C.L. (2010). Women, men, and leadership: Exploring the gender gap at the top. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4/7, 484-498.

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Terrorism as collective communication

By Kevin R. Betts

Recently, intelligence surfaced about several dozen Muslim militants with European citizenship training for attacks that may involve European capitals. These reports are especially worrisome because unlike previous threats, this most recent one involves individuals with unrestricted access between training grounds in Pakistan and various European countries. Western officials are currently advising vigilance among those living and traveling in Europe as attempts are made to dismantle the threat.

Research on terrorist threats like the one captured above have surged following the shocking attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Is it possible to make sense of these threats using this research and improve counterterrorism efforts? Recent work by Fischer, Fischer, Weisweiler, and Frey (2010) suggests that we can. They presented a collective communication model of terrorism (CCMT), which “proposes that terrorism is a complex process of collective dialogue between terrorists and potential victims about political/societal issues and aims…” Their model is an extension of the classic communication model, which comprises a sender, a message, and a receiver. In the CCMT, the terrorist as sender possesses attributes that influence the nature of interactions with the receiver. These attributes may regard cultural origin and motive for the attack, among others. The victim of terrorist threats is the receiver in this model, and also possesses various attributes that influence the nature of interactions. The message in this model may concern political or social issues, and is communicated through a threat or attack committed by the terrorist on to the victim. Fischer et al. (2010) extend this basic model further by considering ways in which the receiver interprets and responds to the message. For instance, victims may respond in ways that are conflict-escalating or deescalating, either of which communicates a new message to the terrorist. This often results in a cyclical process whereby the sender and receiver continuously switch roles sending opposing messages.

What is the implication of this research for counterterrorism efforts? If terrorists and victims simply take turns communicating opposing messages, then no solution can be reached. For counterterrorism measures to be effective, genuine understanding of the motives behind terrorist threats is necessary. Why do today’s terrorists feel hatred toward their victims? Why do they see violence as an acceptable medium of communication? By answering these questions, we may be able reduce the number of future threats, and respond more appropriately to those that still emerge.

Read more:

Dozens of Europeans in terror training (MSNBC)

Fischer, P., Fischer, J.K, Weisweiler, S., & Frey, D. (2010). Terrorism as collective communication: The collective communication model of terrorism (CCMT). Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4/9, 692-703.

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