Category Archives: Social Influence

When “The Black Sheep” Is White

By: Megan E. Birney

2011 marks 10 years since the mixed-race category was added to the U.K.’s annual censes.  To commemorate this event, BBC Two has been running a series of programmes documenting the mixed-race experience both in Britain and around the world.

One of familys profiled in the series are the Kellys.  While the Kellys are mixed race (the father, Errol, is black and the mother, Alyson, is white), what makes them truly extraordinary is that in 1993, Alyson gave birth to twin boys — one black and one white.

How is this possible?  According to population geneticist Dr. Jim Wilson, Errol’s Jamaican heritage holds the answer. In the days of slavery, white men raping black women were common practice and, as a result, most blacks from outside of Africa have a mix of African and European DNA.  In the case of the Kellys, Errol passed his African DNA to his son James (resulting in James’ black skin) but passed his European DNA to his son Daniel (resulting in Daniel’s white skin).

Not surprisingly, being twins with different skin colours was difficult for James and Daniel growing up.  What is surprising, however, is that it was Daniel – the white twin – that endured the bulk of the racist abuse from students at the all-white school the twins attended.  His mum explains that situation like this: “Those kids couldn’t stand the fact that, as they saw it, this white kid was actually black.  It was as though they wanted to punish him for daring to call himself white.”

According to research by Yzerbyt, Leyens, and Bellour (1995), we are quick to reject ingroup members that are not in line with what is required for group membership.  Because the identity of the group is put at stake by misidentifying an ingroup member, we tend to be especially careful when allowing new members in.  If misidentification does occur, there is a “Black Sheep Effect” in which the “bad” ingroup member is chastised more than a similarly “bad’” outgroup member.  In other words, if an ingroup member and an outgroup member both exhibit an undesirable behaviour, we are likely to be much harder on the ingroup member.

Akin to this theory, the white students at the twins’ school punished Daniel because they had identified him as white (and hence an ingroup member) when he was, in actuality, half black.  Such behaviour from these white students illustrates just how important race is in how we identify both others and ourselves.  While the U.K and the rest of the world have come quite far in how we perceive mixed race people, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

Yzerbyt, V., Leyens, J., Bellour, F. (1995). The ingroup overexclusion effect: Identity concerns in decisions about ingroup membership. European Journal of Social Psychology, 25 (1), 1-16.

Black and White Twins: The Guardian, Saturday September 24, 2011

Are you afraid to go to Mexico? Mental shortcuts may promote misperceptions about risk

By Kevin R. Betts

Whenever I mention growing up in Metro Detroit to people in my current city of Fargo, I find myself begrudgingly answering questions about street crime and gang violence — regional attractions and achievements, in contrast, are rarely mentioned. Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising given Detroit’s current label as “America’s most dangerous city” and generally gritty reputation. But I can understand why Mexico’s tourism division speaks of fighting battles against misunderstood risks and geographical imprecision propagated by politicians and the media. Speaking to Newsweek about Mexico’s recent achievements, a Mexican official says “Everything you do is like the fourth paragraph. It should be the headline.

The generalized American fear of traveling to Mexico is not without reason. The country’s drug war alone has lasted four and a half years and left 35,000 dead. Yet, politicians and the media speak of this violence as if it were the only story to be told about the country. In reality, risks faced by Americans in Mexico are quite low. Newsweek’s Bryan Curtis crunches the numbers: “…if you look at the number of Americans killed in Mexico since the drug war began in 2006, and then isolate the number of innocents “caught in the crossfire,” it amounts to only 10 or 20 killings per year….This is in a country with hundreds of thousands of American expats and more than 17 million American tourists.” David Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute, confirms: “It would be naïve to say there is zero risk…But it would be alarmist to say the risk is much higher than ‘very low.’

So why do so many Americans fear crossing their southern border? It probably has a lot to do with the way in which we process information about unknowns. The availability heuristic, for example, is a rule of thumb we use to predict the likelihood of events based on the ease with which examples can be brought to mind. When we think of Mexico, we may visualize beheadings, kidnappings, and mass graves — images that have been provided for us by politicians and the media in recent years. Just as our attention is drawn toward these acts of violence, our attention is drawn away from Mexico’s natural beauty, delicious food, and friendly people. Another rule of thumb known as the representativeness heuristic contributes to this misperception by leading us to judge the probability of one event by finding a comparable event and assuming the probabilities will be similar. So when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that violence is commonplace in places like Acapulco as well. Or more precisely, when we hear about violence in Ciudad Juárez, we wrongly assume that all parts of the city are equally dangerous.

Residents of Detroit understand that their community is more than “America’s most dangerous” and violence in one part of the city says little about violence in another part of the city. Likewise, Americans should realize there is more to Mexico than drug wars and that violence in one region says little about violence in other regions.

Read more:

Bishop, M.A. (2006). Fast and frugal heuristics. Philosophy Compass, 1/2, 201-223.

Come on in, the water’s fine (Newsweek)

America’s most dangerous cities (Forbes)

Don’t be a hero! Benefits of the bystander effect

Patrons exit a crowded soccer stadium

By Kevin R. Betts

I started reading a book this weekend titled, “The Perfect Swarm: The Science of Complexity in Everyday Life.” Author Len Fisher’s central idea is that understanding swarm intelligence can help us make better decisions. Swarm intelligence refers to the collective behavior of decentralized organisms, whether they be locusts, ants, humans or otherwise. The inside cover reads, “…we can use swarm intelligence to start a craze, to work better in committees and get more from our social networks, or even to know when we should change our minds.” Stated simply, it is sometimes in our best interest to just follow the crowd.

As a student of social psychology, one particular question that Fisher asks caught my attention. When in an emergency situation, how can one best navigate a crowd to exit an area where others are also trying to exit? Real life examples of such situations include the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001 as well as the nightclub fires in Rhode Island in 2003 and Moscow in 2009. Fisher’s recommendation is that potential victims head straight for the exits and continue onward until they are at a safe distance. He suggests that this ideal strategy is often impeded, however, by individuals who stop to seek out loved ones or secure their belongings and interfere with the flow of exiting traffic. What Fisher is suggesting is that we not try to be heroes. Rather, we should get the heck out while we can and expect that others are doing the same!

Fisher’s solution to this problem caught my attention because it promotes safety by discouraging helping behavior. It is known that in emergency situations where many people are present, people often fail to provide assistance because they either do not notice the incident, fail to interpret it as an emergency, or fail to assume responsibility. In the case of the 2001 terrorist attacks or the nightclub fires, it is probably the failure to assume responsibility which discourages helping the most. Social psychologists refer to this phenomenon as the bystander effect and have focused much effort on techniques to overcome it. This is because in most cases, it is socially advantageous to help. For example, coming to the aid of an individual experiencing a heart attack on a crowded street might save a life. Yet, as Fisher makes apparent, other situations exist where the best way to help others is simply to help ourselves.

Few of us will ever find ourselves in situations like those experienced by victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks or Rhode Island and Moscow nightclub fires. If we are so unfortunate, however, we might wish to take Fisher’s advice by at least considering whether our assistance would be of any value. What would you do in this situation? Do you expect that your loved ones would do the same?

Read more:

5 years after a nightclub fire, survivors struggle to remake their lives (New York Times)

Hoefnagels, C., & Zwikker, M. (2001). The bystander dilemma and child abuse: Extending the Latané and Darley Model to domestic violence. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31, 1158-1183

View more posts by Kevin R. Betts

Truck driver… no wait a professor! Can glasses really change impressions of you?

By Erica Zaiser

I came across this cartoon recently from Funnymos.com:

Obviously it is meant to be humorous but it also made me wonder:  Does having a trait like glasses change people’s initial impressions of you? And has there been any research on this topic? Turns out, there has.

According to research by Hellstrom and Tekle (1994), people infer not only occupations based on physical traits but also personal characteristics like intelligence and trustworthiness. The researchers conducted studies in which participants rated the personality characteristics and speculated about the occupation of several male faces with either glasses, hair, or a beard. The researchers found that the combination of having glasses, a beard, and no hair was associated most highly with intellectual professions. The opposite in each category led to the strongest belief that the face belonged to someone in a trade profession or a factory worker.

Another set of studies by Terry and Krantz (1993)    further suggest that both men and women with glasses are rated as more competent and also have less social forcefulness. However, in their studies they found that beards were related to less competence. A key difference in this study was that the researchers looked at each difference separately whereas the first study looked at the combination of factors together. So perhaps a beard alone can diminish perceptions of competence but  not when paired with glasses or bald hair in which case a beard has a positive effect on competence ratings.

Of course, these studies only varied a few physical traits and didn’t take into account all the other subtle influences that help form first impressions. Nonetheless, it makes me wonder, would people respect my research more if I wore glasses?

Read More: Dimensions of Trait Attributions Associated with Eyeglasses, Men’s Facial Hair, and Women’s Hair Length

Person perception through facial photographs: Effects of glasses, hair, and beard on judgments of occupation and personal qualities

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Michele Bachmann gets God’s help for election

By, Adam K. Fetterman

Associated Press

Making appeals to religion is nothing new for American politics. Nearly every candidate makes statements such as “God bless America” or claims that their candidacy is a calling from God. However, on the other end of the spectrum, claiming atheism, or a lack of belief, appears to be political suicide. This, in fact, speaks to the pervasiveness of appeals to religion in American politics. Michele Bachmann, an always controversial conservative figure, is certainly no exception. In fact, some have claimed her to be supportive of a theocratic political environment. She invokes religion in nearly every context of her political ideology, which is no surprise given her background. Not only does she do this explicitly, but she also appears to be doing it implicitly. As Michelle Goldberg writes, at the debate in which she announced her candidacy for president, Bachmann did not speak as much about her religion. Goldberg attributes this to Bachmann’s attempt at trying to reach a larger swath of constituents (such as individuals who did not want to hear preaching). Even so, she was still able to make implicit references to the bible. One may ask, why so many appeals to religion?

It is effective! According to research by Bethany Albertson (2011), religious appeals influence voters without their awareness. Using implicit attitude measures, Albertson found that religious appeals not only affect implicit attitudes toward politics, but also behaviors. Furthermore, it also works on those who have previously self-identified as Christian. Given the religious history of America, this finding is not surprising. However, it should be alarming given that our country was intended to keep religion distinct from political mechanisms. Blurring this line is a clear tactic being employed by Michele Bachmann and, as we have seen, it may work. The question is, how much religion is too much?

“Bachmann’s Unrivaled Extremism” By, Michelle Goldberg – The Daily Beast

“God Help the Atheist Politician” By, Jon Rice – Watch Blog

“Bachmann, Santorum Pledge Allegiance to Theocracy in America” – By, Kevin Gosztola

“Dominionist Battle Cry ‘We are the Head and Not the Tail’ Used by Bachmann in Debate” By, Rachel Tabachnick

Albertson, B. (2011). Religious appeals and implicit attitudes. Political Psychology, 32, 109-130

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

Google+ Invitations: We all want one. Why?

By Erica Zaiser

Those who pay attention to the online world will probably know that Google+ fever is sweeping the blogosphere. Everyone wants an invite to the “Facebook killer” and invites are pretty hard to come by. If you are lucky enough to have one, you can brag about being in the group early and if not, you are left wondering what is going on in there and will you ever get to be a part of it. Invites are in such demand they are even popping up for sale on ebay for as much as $100.

What is the rush and why are we all clamouring to jump on board the Google+ ship when we don’t even know what it’s all about? Well for one, we humans love to belong to groups. And what could be better than belonging to Google+, a group which is entirely based on the ability to form groups. Because Google+ is by invitation only, the boundaries are less permeable than Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and the other social networking sites; anyone can join those simply by signing up. Permeability of boundaries has been linked to group identification in numerous psychology studies. Members of groups with highly permeable boundaries have reduced ingroup identification. So a person who is on Facebook just won’t feel as passionate about being a “Facebook user” as someone who is part of Google+.  Google+ users on the other hand, feel strongly about their membership and are spreading their new ingroup love, which automatically makes Google+ seem pretty cool and exclusive.

We are now willing to buy our way into a group that four days ago didn’t even exist because if there is one thing people hate, it’s being excluded.  By releasing the new social networking site as invite only, Google has created something we want to be part of but most just can’t. In a review of research on social exclusion, Dewall and colleagues (2010) highlight how being left out can cause numerous behavioural and emotional problems. Social exclusion can lead to increased aggression, decrease pro-social behaviour, and even induce actual physical pain. Hopefully more invites will open up before those who are being excluded start suffering the negative effects of social exclusion. And yes, I am still waiting for my invite too.

Read more: Belongingness as a Core Personality Trait: How Social Exclusion Influences Social Functioning and Personality Expression

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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.

View more posts by Kevin R. Betts

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.