Science’s Advice for President Elect Biden

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Missing Piece

President Elect Biden must now unite us in meeting the challenges of the pandemic, the economy, the climate, and social ills. To do this, he can use a powerful tool of science, modeling.

Modeling is observing a person showing a particular behavior and then engaging in that behavior. One learns to behave a certain way just by observing a person behaving that way. And, if the model gets a reward for a particular behavior, it is even more likely the observer will engage in that behavior.

For example, watching a person on a television program or on social media show kindness and honesty in interactions with others, inspires the viewer to show kindness and honesty. The viewer might also see that person rewarded for those behaviors by the recipient smiling and saying “thank you”. Likewise, watching a person insulting others and repeating lies increases those behaviors in the viewer, especially if there is a reward for doing so. The reward can be as simple as then feeling superior over others.

When the President of the United States models bigotry and lying, followers see these behaviors as ones that will get them what they want. When the President of the United States models respect and honesty, followers will show each other the same. 

President Elect Biden can demonstrate listening with empathy and then acting with compassion. If he models these behaviors on social media, he can heal the divide as more and more people begin to show these behaviors towards each other.

If he models these behaviors in his interactions with politicians, he will increase the chance that those politicians will also show these behaviors in developing a consensus where everyone wins.

Modeling is such a powerful learning device that even advertisers use it to get viewers to buy their product. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi were prosocial models who were able to inspire global social change. Now President Elect Biden will have no difficulty consistently modeling prosocial behaviors that are his second nature.  These behaviors will then bring us together to create a better country for all of us. We will learn to listen to each other rather than denigrating those who think or act differently from us. Empathy, respect, compassion, and honesty come naturally to him. And, because these are the behaviors of love, if we all start showing them, they can replace hate.

Bandura, A. (1986., Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. (pp. 169-195).

Bandura, A. (1965). Influence of models’ reinforcement contingencies on the acquisition of imitative responses. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1, 589-595.

Palmer, B.B. (2018). Love demystified: Strategies for a successful love life. St. Petersburg, Florida: Booklocker.

4 science-based strategies to tame angry political debate and encourage tolerance

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“Climate change is a hoax,” my cousin said during a family birthday party. “I saw on Twitter it’s just a way to get people to buy expensive electric cars.” I sighed while thinking, “How can he be so misinformed?” Indeed, what I wanted to say was, “Good grief, social media lies are all you read.”

No doubt my cousin thought the same of me, when I said Republican senators are too afraid of the president to do what’s right. Not wanting to create a scene, we let each other’s statements slide by in icy silence.

As a psychology professor and clinical psychologist in private practice, I know my relationship with my cousin would have improved if we could have discussed those issues in a nonthreatening way. If only.

I’m not alone in my frustration – and my desire for change. A December 2019 poll conducted by Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos showed more than nine out of 10 Americans said it’s time to reduce divisiveness, which they believe is exacerbated by government leaders and social media. People want to stop the animosity and relate to one another again. But how?

Based on my knowledge of psychological research, here are four approaches you can use to overcome divisiveness.

Don’t isolate yourself from people with different points of view.

1. Connect

Avoiding interactions with people who have different opinions perpetuates divisiveness. Risk connecting with these people. Relate through activities you enjoy such as volunteering, joining a “Meetup” group or starting a book club. You could even invite people from various backgrounds to a potluck dinner at your home.

What activities like these share is a common goal, which creates a cooperative atmosphere instead of a competitive one. Research demonstrates that contact alone does not ensure cooperative interaction. To truly connect, you both have to demonstrate respect while working on a common goal.

2. Find common ground

It’s important to remember the basic need to feel secure is shared by all people. Focusing on commonalities can lead to a deeper understanding of another person, while focusing on differences will lead to arguments.

An argument involves two people asserting one is right while the other is wrong. But what gets lost in this scenario is the common ground of the problem they both are trying to wrestle with.

Restate the problem. Together, brainstorm all the different ways it might be solved.

For example, a person might say the only way to protect America from terrorism is to sharply limit immigration. Instead of challenging that immigration must be limited, you can restate the problem – then ask if there might be ways to deal with terrorism besides limiting immigration. You might find some solutions you agree upon.

3. Communicate

Listen more and talk less. Show the other person you have understood what they said before jumping in with your thoughts.

Everyone wants to be acknowledged as heard. If they are not, they will continue to press their point. So, to stop an argument in its tracks, start listening and reflect back what you’ve heard.

You’ve probably experienced listening for only what you want to hear – and possibly found yourself not listening at all. You may just be waiting to give a knee-jerk reaction to what the other person is saying.

To listen well, you need to first open your ears, eyes and heart. Examine your biases so you can hear without judgment. Suspend your self-interest and stay with what the other person is saying. Then tell that person what you heard.

Showing empathy does not mean you necessarily agree with what the other person is saying. It just means you’re reassuring the other person you have listened before making your own statement.

Now, it’s time for you to share where you’re coming from. Take a deep breath. Cool down and reassess your thoughts so you can give a considered response, instead of a quick reaction. You can disagree without being disrespectful.

Communication using the above process leads to a conversation instead of an argument and builds a more trusting relationship. It takes only one of you to create an empathetic conversation, as empathy begets empathy. The more compassionate understanding you give, the more you get.

Be skeptical and learn to recognize when you are being manipulated by divisive content.

4. Learn to critically evaluate media

Don’t passively accept all that you see and hear. There are too many sources of distorted facts, unsupported opinions and outright lies available today. Critically evaluate what is being presented by considering the source and fact-checking the content.

Above all, if the message seems fake, don’t share it. Google has a fact-checking tool, and First Draft News has tools to evaluate false content and the way it is disseminated. You can also consult Full Fact and CUNY’s fact-checking guide. So, when you hear or see someone sharing fake information, don’t challenge it. Instead, show how to fact check the information.

Avoid anger and hate in the content you consume. Evaluate whether it is seeking to pit you against another person or group. Follow media that supports empathy, compassion and understanding. But don’t get lulled into a bubble by reading only content you agree with. Help children and teens, not only to critically evaluate media, but also to become kind and caring toward people who are different from them. Teach tolerance by showing tolerance. Yes, you are only one person trying to create change, but your influence does matter.

As for me, the next time I see my cousin, I plan to listen with empathy; let him know I understand his point of view; and try to identify a common goal around which we can share our perspectives.

(The above article was first posted in The Conversation.)

Why Are We So Divided and What Can We Do about It? Psychological Research Has Some Clues

Our nation is increasingly becoming divided into opposing groups.  And these divisions are becoming more and more entrenched.  So, why is this occurring? 

Similarity Brings Comfort

Psychologists say it is easiest to stick with people who we see as similar to ourselves. It requires more effort to step outside our bubble.  So, we tend to associate with people who look or think like ourselves.

We then we take the similarity even one step further by assuming that people who are similar to us on one characteristic are similar to us on many other characteristics.  For example, if a person belongs to the same political party or religion that we do, we might think they also like the same activities that we do. Thus, we have a strong tendency to categorize people with a broad brush.

We also want assurances that we will be liked before we attempt to interact with someone else.  People who are similar to us tend to be liked by us and tend to like us more so than is the case with dissimilar people.  Again, then, we isolate ourselves from the challenge of being with dissimilar people.  The process of seeing our group as the best group is known as ingroup bias.

Ingroup Bias is Hardwired

Viewing others in the same way we view ourselves is a function of a part of our brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex.  Other parts of our brain also predispose us to ingroup bias.

We see the same behaviors of people not in our group as different from those of people in our group. A group of psychologists presented Democrats and Republicans during the U.S. Presidential election of 2004 with an initial statement (e.g., a politician said they were going to lower taxes) from a presidential candidate of their own or another political group.  Participants were subsequently shown a statement which involved an action which contradicted the initial statement (e.g., the politician is now not lowering taxes). Participants perceived less contradiction between the initial statement and the action that contradicted the statement from their own group leader. This biased processing of information from ingroup versus outgroup leaders showed up as activation in certain areas of the brain.

When feeling threatened by an outgroup member, another part of our brain is activated.  Australian psychologists asked Non-Muslim participants to decide to either shoot a photograph of a Muslim (outgroup member) or a Non-Muslim (ingroup member) who, in the photograph, was holding a gun. When confronted by the photograph of the outgroup member with a gun and while deciding to shoot the photograph of this member, the lateral orbitofrontal cortex of the Non-Muslim participant was activated. But it was not activated when deciding whether to shoot the photograph of the ingroup member.

Ingroup Bias is Amplified by Social Media

Social media increases our isolation from others. We tend to subscribe to popular media which only confirms our point of view.  People outside our group may have a different point of view but we are not exposed to it.  And when we are not exposed to outgroup members, our ingroup bias is intensified.

Stereotypes of outgroup members run rampant. We even then begin surmising what other people think.  People who dress like Muslims might think like or (gasp) be terrorists.  People who are trying to immigrate to the United States might think they can be freeloaders.  These stereotypes all come from seeing people outside our group as not only making us uncomfortable but as being a threat. 

It is the way we see people not like us that creates fear and hate—not the actual reality.  Yes, some people from our group as well as some people outside our group are, at best misinformed, and even terrorists and freeloaders, but most people are not.  Yet we continue to have a perception of people not like us in terms of stereotypes.

See Others as Individuals, Not as Members of a Group

To change our perception, we must be exposed to people not like us in positive contexts.  We cannot just stay in our safe shell.  We have to actively seek out people who are not similar to us. We will then see others as individuals, not just as members of an outgroup.

One way to develop positive images is through travel where we interact with others—this could be travel within or outside the United States.  Another way is for positive images and stories about people from groups other than our own to be presented in popular media (social media, television, magazines, newspapers), schools, churches, even stores.

There are many benefits to taking the risk of being with people different from ourselves.  One benefit is changing attitudes toward outgroup members.  The change in attitudes reduces conflict, which benefits one’s well being as well as society.

Another benefit of interacting with outgroup members is self-expansion. Self-expansion means we develop a wider view of who we are and of what we are able to do.  We are motivated to expand ourselves.  And one of the best ways to do so is to engage in activities with members of an outgroup.  We begin to incorporate some of the positive characteristics and resources of others into our view of our self.

Yes, we need to reach out and speak to people other than ourselves.  But, most of all, we need to listen to them.

REFERENCES

Aron, A., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., Mashek, D., Lewandowski, G., Wright, S.C. & Aron. E.N. (2004) Including others in the self, European Review of Social Psychology, 15(1), 101-132, DOI: 10.1080/10463280440000008

Domínguez D, J.F., van Nunspeet,F., Gupta, A., Eres, R., Louis, W.R., Decety, J., & Molenberghs, P. (2018). Lateral orbitofrontal cortex activity is modulated by group membership in situations of justified and unjustified violence, Social Neuroscience, 13 (6), 739-755. DOI: 10.1080/17470919.2017.1392342

Hampton, A.J., Fisher Boyd, A.N., & Sprecher, S. (2019). You’re like me and I like you: Mediators of the similarity-liking link assessed before and after a getting-acquainted social interaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36 (7), 2221-2224. DOI:10.1177/0265407518790411

Locke, K.D., Craig, T., Baik, K.D., Gohil, K.(2012). Binds and bounds of communion: effects of interpersonal values on assumed similarity of self and others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 103(5), 879-897.

Molenberghs, P., Louis, W. R. (2018). Insights from fMRI studies into ingroup bias. Frontiers in Psychology, 9 (1868), 1-12. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01868 

Paolini, S., Wright, S., Dys-Steenbergen, O., & Favara, I.. (2016). Self‐Expansion and intergroup contact: Expectancies and motives to self‐expand lead to greater interest in outgroup contact and more positive intergroup relations. Journal of Social Issues. 72, 450-471. DOI: 10.1111/josi.12176.

Westen, D., Blagov, P. S., Harenski, K., Kilts, C., and Hamann, S. (2006). Neural bases of motivated reasoning: an fMRI study of emotional constraints on partisan political judgment in the 2004 US presidential election. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 18, 1947–1958. DOI: 10.1162/jocn.2006.18.11.1947

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What the World Needs Now

diverse hands

“What the world needs now is love …. Not just for some, but for everyone.”

Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote that song in 1965, when the United States was involved in the Vietnam War.  Are we at war again now, 53 years later, not overseas, but at home? 

Well, we do have a war of words and actions directed at demolishing others.  Oh, “others”?  Even characterizing another person as “the other” creates division.  It becomes all too easy to become divided into camps of “us versus them”.  So, let’s try again…we have a war of words and actions that obscures our common humanity.

When our primary source of news switched from newspapers to social media, we entered a “post-truth world” in which people read, listen, and watch what they agree with, not what challenges their preconceptions.  Isolation from different points of view, different values, different customs all entrenches us in our preconceptions.

Most of our preconceptions are based on gaining or maintaining power over another group of people. For example, if we read on our social media sites that blue people who come to the United States are free-loaders we will probably not be exposed to news about the blue people who contribute to our society.  We then can maintain our previous prejudice and see “them” as not as good as “us”.  Furthermore, if we exclude blue people from our social groups, we can associate only with people with the same belief, thereby solidifying our belief.

What, then, might heal these divisions and antipathies? 

Love is what the world needs now.  But can we love someone who thinks differently, acts differently, and looks different?  There is a way to do this and it is called “empathy”. 

To have empathy for another person means setting aside our evaluations of that person.  Then we actively listen to the other person’s thoughts and feelings and acknowledge we heard them.1   This doesn’t mean we agree with the other person, just that we understand where that person is coming from and tell that person that we do.

When we are viewing another person with empathy, we have momentarily let go of our defenses.  And when we acknowledge the other person’s thoughts and feelings it disarms him/her.  Defenses are not needed by either party, so better communication and cooperation can emerge.

A loving empathy has been used even to defuse conflict between groups of people.2 The surprising fact is that both parties do not have to show empathy initially.  It only takes one person or group to start the process of empathetic communication.  And then empathy begets empathy.3

Through empathy, then, we have the power to connect with others at a level that is deeper than attitudes and beliefs.  When we truly listen to the other person, we see the other person’s humanity beyond our previous preconceptions.  No longer is there a power struggle of us versus them.  There are just two human beings willing to listen to each other, heart to heart, without judgment. Then we can connect through acknowledging our common human needs, feelings, and fears. 

The empathetic approach to relationships is backed by evidence that it works—it works to neutralize power differences and tensions.4 Empathy is a viable alternative to our present way of seizing and using power.  It is a quiet revolution.5

References

(Notice how old the references below are and, yet, we still have not implemented them throughout our society.)

  1. Rogers, C. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology 21, 95-103.
  2. Rogers, C., and Sanford, R. (1987). Reflections on our South African experience. Counseling and Values (Special issue on Carl Rogers and the person-centered approach to peace) 32, 17-20.
  3. Feshbach, N.D. & Feshbach, S. (1982). Empathy training and the regulation of aggression: Potentialities and limitations. Academic Psychology Bulletin, 4, 399-413.
  4. Rogers, C. R., and Sanford, R. (1987). Inside the world of the Soviet professional. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 27, 277-304.
  5. Rogers, C. (1977). On personal power: Inner strength and its revolutionary impact. New York: Delacorte Press.    

 

Seeing Others as a Threat and How to Change It

#lovelifeprof.com

 

Our nation is increasingly becoming divided into opposing groups.  Yes, most of us have a tendency to feel most comfortable when we associate with people who look or think like ourselves.  People who look or think differently than we do, make us uncomfortable.  So, we stay away from them and isolate ourselves even further with our own kind.

Our isolation from others is intensified as we subscribe to popular media which confirms our point of view.  People outside our group may have a different point of view but we are not exposed to it.  Then we begin surmising what other people think.  People who dress like Muslims might think like or (gasp) be terrorists.  People who are trying to emigrate to the United States might think they can be freeloaders.  These stereotypes all come from seeing people outside our group as a threat, which popular media perpetuates.

It is the way we see people not like us that creates fear and hate—not the actual reality.  Yes, some people from our group as well as some people outside our group are terrorists and freeloaders, but most people are not.  Yet we continue to have a perception of people not like us as a threat.

To change our perception, we must be exposed to people not like us in positive contexts.  One way to develop positive images is through travel where we interact with others—this could be travel within or outside the United States.  Another way is to view positive images and stories about people from groups other than our own in popular media (social media, television, magazines, newspapers), schools, churches, even stores.

We need to reach out and speak to people other than those in our own group.  But, most of all, we need to listen to them.

 

What the World Needs Now

Compassion

As the 1965 song reminds us, “what the world needs now is love…not just for some but for everyone.”

The challenge today is to ask ourselves, “Can we show love towards everyone?”

Can you love someone who has beliefs very different from yours, someone who has hurt you, someone who is a stranger?  Wholeheartedly answering “yes” is difficult because love seems to be restricted to close relationships.  Indeed, we expect romantic partners and family members to love each other.  But loving a stranger—that isn’t love.

Is it possible to love someone who is very different from you?  Oops, maybe we shouldn’t have put that person into the box of “different”.  Even seeing someone as different, and judging that person as “the other” has already put a limit on your ability to love.  For loving another means identifying commonalities and recognizing our common humanity.  Someone may look, think, or act differently than you do but that person’s feelings are no different from your own.  So, a connection can be built by recognizing the feelings that are behind the thoughts and actions.  A loving response then lets the other person know you recognize these feelings.

Love that goes beyond close relations to strangers and even to all of humanity means responding with understanding rather than judgment.  Seeing another person through your eyes often involves judging that person.  Seeing another person through their eyes leads to understanding that person.  You begin to feel what the other person is feeling, to have empathy and to tell that person what you are experiencing when you are seeing through their eyes.  An empathetic connection is the essence of love and it can be created with anyone.

Let us choose love over fear.

What the World Needs Now

world and heart

Love is what the world needs now.  But can we love someone who thinks differently, acts differently, and looks different?  There is a way to do this and it is called “empathy”. 

To have empathy for another person means setting aside our evaluations of that person.  Then we actively listen to the other person’s thoughts and feelings and acknowledge we heard them.1  That doesn’t mean we agree with the other person, just that we understand where that person is coming from and tell that person that we do.

When we are viewing another person with empathy, we have momentarily let go of our defenses.  And when we acknowledge the other person’s thoughts and feelings it disarms him/her.  Defenses are not needed by either party, so better communication and cooperation can emerge.

A loving empathy has been used even to defuse conflict between groups of people.2 The surprising fact is that both parties do not have to show empathy initially.  It only takes one person or group to start the process of empathic communication.  And then empathy begets empathy.3

Through empathy, then, we have the power to connect with others at a level that is deeper than attitudes.  We connect through acknowledging our common human needs and fears. 

The empathic approach to relationships is backed by evidence that it works—it works to neutralize power differences and tensions.4 Empathy is a viable alternative to our present way of seizing and using power.  It is a quiet revolution.5

References

  1. Rogers, C. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology 21, 95-103.
  2. Rogers, C., and Sanford, R. (1987). Reflections on our South African experience. Counseling and Values (Special issue on Carl Rogers and the person-centered approach to peace) 32, 17-20.
  3. Feshbach, N.D. & Feshbach, S. (1982). Empathy training and the regulation of aggression: Potentialities and limitations. Academic Psychology Bulletin, 4, 399-413.
  1. Rogers, C. R., and Sanford, R. (1987). Inside the world of the Soviet professional. Journal of Humanistic Psychology 27, 277-304.
  2. Rogers, C. (1977). On personal power: Inner strength and its revolutionary impact. New York: Delacorte Press.

What Do You Do When a Powerful Person is an Insecure Liar?

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“I am the most important person, not you, and I am always right” is the mantra of the compulsive liar.  Of course, he is not the most important person (lie number one) and he is not always right (lie number two).  Yet, you can be drawn to his seemingly self-confidence and power.  Then, as long as you agree with him (even if what you are agreeing with is a lie), you will be part of his inner-circle. 

But, how do you deal with a compulsive liar if you don’t agree with him?  And why does he impulsively and compulsively lie?

Psychologists have described one type of person who lies so as to boost his ego.  He needs constant admiration from others and will even lie to get it.  If he is confronted with the lie instead of being admired, his worst fear of being criticized and rejected will appear, causing him to attack or try to silence the messenger.  He can easily attack without fearing the consequences because he lacks empathy and compassion for others.  His view is the right view and all other views are false views.  After all, for him it is just a comparison of views, not facts.

The compulsive liar has a grandiose sense of self-worth which is shown by boasting and being contemptuous towards “lesser beings”. Others are seen as being able to be conned by lies that will lead to his personal profit.  Because he does not feel a human connection with most people, he has no compunction about crushing them in order to achieve his goals. His impulsivity is shown in his speech and sexual promiscuity.  Yes, this could get him into trouble but he then deflects and denies responsibility.  Because he is such a great showman, he can fool many people many times.

The brain of the individual who impulsively and compulsively tells lies may be different from others’ brains.  Psychologists Yaling Yang and Adrian Raine have found that pathological liars have a significant increase in white matter and a decrease in the grey/white ratio in the prefrontal cortex compared to normal controls.1 The relative reduction in grey matter is linked with disinhibition, resulting in impulsivity and compulsivity.  The increase in white matter provides the capacity to size up a social situation enough to construct a really good lie.

So, if there are actually neurobiological differences in the brains of pathological liars, how can you deal with them?  You can’t change them and you can’t confront them.  The best you can do is contain them.  Reduce their sphere of influence so that their lies affect as few people as possible.  If you work with a self-aggrandizing liar, divide up parts of a project so you can be totally responsible for one part.  If you live with this person, stop trying to please him/her.  Look to other people and to yourself to satisfy your needs instead of depending on him/her.  If this person is one of the most powerful in the world, join with others to create a group that is more powerful than he is.

  1. Yang, Y., Raine, A., Lencz, T., Bihrle, S., Lacasse, L & Colletti, P. (2005). Prefrontal white matter in pathological liars. British Journal of Psychiatry. 187,320-325.

Raine, A., Lencz, T. et. al. (2000). Reduced prefrontal gray matter volume and reduced autonomic activity in antisocial personality disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 57,119-127.